“Once upon a time,” a voice tells us, a fairytale beginning, “1870 to be exact, a 16-year-old kid traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love. His name was Jay. Her name was Rose.”
Slow West starts—as did the world—with stars. “Pegasus, the Great Bear, the Dragon, Andromeda…” Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lists. Stars have always been a guiding light, a spiritual GPS. Every day I get a push notification with a horoscope I don’t read warning me about a romance I won’t have. Jay looks up to the stars for a route, for certainty. He aims a pistol, mock-shoots, whisper-sized pews coming out of his mouth. Orion’s Belt, the only constellation I can identify and that’s on a good day, shines above him. Flat on his back, eyes pitched up to the galaxy, the stars bid a silent farewell, and now it’s just Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose above him, Rose on top of him. She smiles, breathes like a person who doesn’t mind being out of breath.
The future is the unknown. The past we don’t have to worry about. The past is done. The past is clear: written in the stars. “Once upon a time,” the stars tell us, a fairytale beginning, “a 16-year-old kid traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love.”
The West is violent and strange, vast and unpredictable, green and tan and painfully blue. It is nothing like the bleary grays of Scotland, in part because in the West, Jay is without everything that empowered him back home. There, he had a title and money. Here, his books and his dollars mean little more than a target on his back. The West isn’t built for intellectuals; it isn’t built for any of the white men traversing its plains. Everything Jay knows about the West comes from books, the past made instruction manual. But a book won’t tell a boy how to shoot someone. For that, he’ll need a man.
The West is not a place for love, it’s a place for business. Look, who doesn’t get a little weepy when they see some mountains in the distance, but if you think all these people died for a vista…uh oh. There’s nothing romantic about making a quick buck, so there is nothing romantic about Silas (Michael Fassbender), the drifter Jay latches onto with urgent desperation.
We know from the moment Silas speaks (or sooner, possibly, if you have rapid-fire Michael Fassbender voice recognition buried somewhere in your brain) that it’s his voice narrating the film. “Once upon a time,” Silas tells us in the opening seconds, stars glittering across to the sky. To Jay, as they lope together, he’s silent. “You care not why I’m headed West?” Jay asks. Nothing. The thing about the West is that it doesn’t require context. You don’t see a novel written out on a WANTED poster. Bounty hunters aren’t interested in backstory. “There was an accident,” Jay continues. “My girl and her father fled from Scotland. Settled out West. It was all my fault.”
Jay’s manner of speaking mimics the men he meets in America: short, curt, direct sentences. Like your standard-issue liar, however, he’s still over-explaining the circumstances of his arrival in the States and his quest. This is to be expected. Jay comes from an aristocratic class, and he believes his education, his ability to articulate what he believes to be true will not only distinguish him but dictate the future. “My girl,” he says of Rose. Who is she to him? She is his girl, she was his girl. Jay is writing his own history. The two men ride West––forward, towards the left side of the frame, into an unknown landscape. The audience’s gaze travels from left to right, from west to east, so it almost looks like they’re moving backwards.
“That kid was a wonder. He saw things differently,” Silas tells us in voiceover. Differently is a kindness, a particularly generous reading of a not altogether generous person. It allows for the benefit of the doubt. Silas adds: “To him, we were in a land of hope and goodwill.” This, too, is a romantic reading of Jay’s naivety, one that is largely informed by his privilege. He understands in an elemental sense that the West is dangerous, but not dangerous to him. Not deadly to him. Jay carries a pistol, but he’s mostly using it to take false aim at the stars. If he fires one into the sky, can he change his fate? When Jay and Silas meet, the gun isn’t even loaded. He’s not even ready for the future.
Jay’s quest may be noble, at least at face value, but he is not. Not long after he and Silas link up, they stop at a general store for supplies. Nothing “goes well” or even “goes quietly” in the West, and so a routine errand for beans and milk ends in blood. A foreign couple—Swedish, if the subtitles are to be trusted—shows up and tries to rob the store. The store owner shoots the husband, the wife shoots the store owner, and as she then points a frantic pistol at Silas, it’s Jay who fires the killing shot. It is an unspeakable act of brutality. Necessary, probably, but awful nonetheless. When Jay and Silas step back out into the sunshine, the towheaded children of the couple look up at them in confusion and despair.
Jay is not altogether indifferent to his murder, but he commits the act with a steady coldness. Silas encourages him, no doubt, guides him to focus on his breathing as he takes aim and pulls the trigger. The murder does not complicate his character. He does not grapple with his guilt alongside his journey to his love. It is one thing to be changed by an event—it is another to have grown into it. Though Jay may see the West as a lawless place, there’s an assumption there that the law exists to prevent violence, instead of enhance it. “I killed a woman yesterday,” Jay confesses to a stranger later on.
“Part and parcel,” the man tells him. Men will justify the violence they do as a part of a system that allows it.
I’m not saying that Jay’s plan is bad, but I’m asking what the future holds. What is supposed to happen if all goes correctly? He settles down with Rose and her father, adjusts to life on the plains. Here, still, the logic is faulty. In flashback, we see Jay and Rose play together on the beach, reference Shakespeare, tumble through wet sand. He professes love to her. She is his love; he is not hers. To Rose, Jay is like a little brother. To him, she is an escape from a system he feels oppressed him (when it is actually her—and her father—oppressed by him). He hides under the bed as the working folks on his father’s estate drink and laugh. This is fantasy, just like his vision of the West. He seeks solace in their brutishness. He wants to be the brute.
The night that he hides and watches Rose and her father (Rory McCann) and his friends cavort comes to an abrupt end when his father storms in and puts a stop to things. Jay isn’t supposed to be there. He does not make sense in the context of these people—they are below him. “I’m with Rose now,” he protests. Rose averts her gaze; her father looks on in confusion. Did anyone ask for him to be with her? Jay’s father strikes Rose—Rose’s father strikes Jay’s father—see how this begins and ends and begins and ends? The blow is fatal. The past repeats. Jay is a product of the very system that puts the bounty on his love’s head. So much for a wedding gift.
Jay leaves Silas one morning in an attempt to venture out on his own. One tires of Silas’s quote-unquote uncouthness. That he dared to ask Jay if he’d even bedded Rose. (Though the comment is made with a signature Fassbender smirk, it’s not an entirely out of line question. It is sort of if not extremely insane to travel across the world for a person who may not even consent to sleep with you, norms of the past be damned.)
So Jay rides off, solo, until he wanders across a dry field with a lone German camped out. “I come in peace,” Jay says.
The two men take solace in the other’s company. “East: what news?” Werner (Andrew Robertt) asks.
Jay considers this. “Violence and suffering. And West?”
“Dreams. And toil.”
Werner is a writer, working on a book about the decimation of aboriginal tribes. As Jay relays the news of a burnt Indian camp he passed, Werner grabs his book. “A race extinct, their culture banished, their places renamed…Only then will they be viewed with selective nostalgia, mythologized and romanticized in the safe guise of art and,” he throws his book to the ground, “literature.”
Jay and Werner are one in the same: objective observers. They are the ones who will reproduce this selective nostalgia, sitting around a campfire and connecting blurred dots. They have all the right opinions about what’s happening, the educated opinions, that is, but they are useless in the face of injustice. They, too, will be victims of this selective nostalgia, and perhaps selective nostalgia is what continues to bring ruin upon the West. Jay himself travels halfway across the world on account of selective nostalgia: it has replaced history, it has replaced memory. The past is not a full picture, but a collection of stars. The bright parts shine, with a dullness surrounding them. Jay has chosen to forget Rose’s rejection, replacing her power with his own supposed heroism. Literature, romance—these are not violent trades. But they are not exactly peaceful either.
Jay and Werner drink coffee. They sit on chairs. Werner is everything Silas isn’t. “Til now, my sole companion’s been a brute,” Jay tells him.
Werner, only somewhat a liar, promises Jay an egg in the morning. There is indeed an egg in the morning—raw—sitting atop a piece of paper. When Jay grabs the egg, the paper flutters away in a crisp wind. Only when he gets ahold of it again does he read the lone word on the paper: “WEST,” with an arrow beneath. Where this points, where he ought to go, a giant question mark. West is all-encompassing. Dreams and toil, but also violence and suffering. Werner is not a sage—he is a remnant of a violent European past. What could be clearer than him doing what Europeans have done for centuries: stealing all of Jay’s belongings in the night? A shame, then, to be reminded of what waits for Jay on the other side of the Atlantic. And shame, always, that brutes surround us, and in the frigid morning desert air, the person who comes to Jay’s rescue is Silas, the brute.
Jay and Silas are not the only men out here. There’s a whole slew of bounty hunters tracking them, led by a fur coat of a human being, Payne (Ben Mendelsohn—chef’s kiss). In a lesser film, the villains are villains. Here, they are mostly just more guys (and their token female bounty hunter). Payne’s gang are ruthless, but to whom? To Jay? Who shot a woman? It takes more than Ben Mendelsohn to frighten me, is all I’ll say. When Payne lurches into Silas and Jay’s camp with a bottle of absinthe, the threat of violence wears away quickly. If he can’t pump them for information, he’ll settle for getting them shitfaced. Already we rewrite history. Already we feel safe in the context of someone we don’t yet know. Storytelling is laying down train tracks as the train is coming, only you’re not yet sure what direction the locomotive is coming from.
In a drunken stupor, Jay wanders into Payne’s gang’s camp. Right into the den of thieves. This group—the ones we’ve been warned about, who even Silas seems to fear—have taken in the Swedish orphans that Jay and Silas left behind. The group rants and raves about whether it’s better or worse to be the subject of the newspapers. “What’s the point in dyin’ if nobody knows you’re dead?” one of them spits.
It’s a good question, one that prompts one of the elder bounty hunters into a long-winded story. But I’d rather stay on the question. What is the point in dying if nobody knows you’re dead? It’s a question that argues on behalf of notoriety, of fame, of self-invented myth. “Once upon a time,” Silas tells us at the start. We begin with Jay, not Rose. We begin with violence. What’s the point in dying if your story doesn’t get plucked and amplified, told over a crackling fire.
It’s here that we arrive at Rose and her father and Kotori (Kalani Queypo), a Native American man who appears to have taken up residence with them. We know very little about them. Rose’s life is kept a mystery to the audience. Not for fear of over-explaining, but because this is how stories work. We know the mundanities of the nomad, the knight, the gunman. We know their campsite flooded. We know a German stole all his belongings. But we know nothing of Rose and her father—how they came to the West, how they’ve hidden, how they met Kotori, how they built a new life. Rose struggles to make butter, its formless mass melting in the sunny wooden cabin. This is not cinematic. This is not heroic. So we have been made blind to it, instead tracking the folly of Jay.
When it ends in violence, in explosive gunshots and fire, it ends on the boundary of Rose and her father’s house. Everyone has converged: Silas, the bounty hunters, and running, sprinting, into the line of fire, Jay. Silas ties him to a tree, perhaps for his own safety. Jay assumes otherwise. His traveling companion, his brute, wants to kill the girl first. Or maybe he wants to do something worse. Though Silas has shown nothing but humanity towards Jay (albeit the occasional bit of verbal rudeness), Jay assumes the worst because he sees it in himself. He looks for the worst and projects it outwards.
The shootout has all the rhythm of a whack-a-mole game. Tiny explosions of blood dappled across a field of dry grass. Rose’s father is killed. Kotori is killed. Silas, too, is shot twice. Jay bursts through the door of Rose’s house, and she fires directly into his heart. I’m tempted to write the former sentence with a modifier. Start the story over again. “Once upon a time,” etc. She fires directly into his heart without thinking. She fires directly into his heart carelessly. But she does not kill Jay without thinking. She does not kill Jay carelessly. She is a woman alone in a house beset by violence from all sides, and when yet another man with a gun bursts through her door, she acts as one would expect. She shoots the brute in the heart.
Jay sits against a wall, face paling, blood oozing out of the corner of his mouth. A lone gunshot knocks a jar of salt directly onto his wound. A metaphor made obvious. (I laugh every time, in spite of myself.) Rose sits beside him as he dies, takes his hand. A brief respite of tenderness in an otherwise brutal film. Even in his dying moments, she is quick to note his silliness—it is not her fault for shooting him, but his for following, for bursting in, for embarking on a fool’s errand. His story is coming to an end quicker than he expected. The details fade away, only bright spots remain.
“He loved you with all his heart,” Silas says, the two sitting over Jay’s body.
“His heart was in the wrong place,” Rose tells him.
“His spirit was true,” he contests.
Here we see it made plain: selective nostalgia. Was Jay’s spirit true? We are left with this idea—the true-spirited Jay—as the film shows us each of the dead bodies racked up over the course of its tale. These are the constellations, littered across the west. In her poem “Our Bodies Break Light,” Traci Brimhall writes, “stars need a darkness to see themselves by.” These old tales exist to perpetuate not truth but self-mythology. We cannot remember every star in the sky, so we remember the ones that get told to us, over and over again. “Pegasus, the Great Bear, the Dragon, Andromeda,” and so on. If we are to believe the film, which is to say, if we are to believe Silas, he and Rose make a home together, take in the little orphans. It’s too neat. Unlikely. Ignores the violence, ignores the suffering. Makes whole something that cannot be fixed. “Once upon a time,” the film begins, “a 16-year-old kid traveled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love.”