John Maclean’s Slow West might as well be titled “Anti-West,” because the film is designed consciously with that concept in mind. In fact, the film makes it quite clear right from the start: two white men chase a Native American, a scenario not too dissimilar to a standard Western, yet they are confronted by a kid whom they cannot identify easily (the man bluntly asks “white or Indian?”) because he is essentially outside of the usual ethnic binary of the genre (despite being white). Then the white man is killed by another white man, who then coerces the kid into his custody. Such setup essentially regionalises the white race–the cultural concept which Westerns were most contributory to its formulation–into subsections. Right from the start, the film upsets the ethnic expectations of a typical Western genre, and it nevers stops.
The most admirable thing that Slow West does is how brutely yet also satisfyingly it breaks the generic mould of one of the Hollywood’s oldest genres. If Leone twisted the genre with his Spaghetti Westerns, and Tarantino merely placed the genre within his own cinematic world, Maclean takes the generic mould and obsessively goes against it. Usually, such approach comes with severe problems: going against the established norm for the sake of going against it is bound to trap the style in the reactionary cycle. But Slow West instead really slows down for its anti-Western concepts to float around and make its own meanings and interactions. It not only breaks the mould, but also shows us how beautiful the “other way” can be. It sets the frontier in a familiar yet fresh perspective.
I’m not just talking about the warm colour palettes (though certainly that is one of its strong suits); by upsetting the usual binaries (white/natives, civilization/frontier, female/male, law/outlaw) the film boasts a colourful cast of characters and episodes that are not about the narrative arc, but the contemplation on what frontier is. There are so many immigrants here–Scottish, Germans, blacks from French Caribbean, Asian, and even an assimilated Native who can be said to have re-immigrated to their own land–but none of them are represented by their colour, but what they do.
Many critics of Slow West are quick to point out the stylistic inspirations Maclean draws from well-known auteurs–the visual production and cinematic techniques resemble that of centre-obsessed, artifice-loving Wes Anderson, the snappy dialogue and quirky characters from Coen brothers, and the entire attitude towards approaching the Western genre to that of Quentin Tarantino. They all have valid points, but I believe the discussion is missing the point; I don’t believe that these parallels are the foundations of the film, but the foundations of the film encouraged Maclean to adopt such styles. Anderson-like visuals emphasise the artifice of the cinematic West created by a culture that was born long after (if one cannot achieve total realism of the frontier with cinema–The Revenant came close, but only so with aesthetics–why not validate its un-realism with surrealism?), while the Coen-esque characters and Tarantino-esque generic attitude work to further explore its themes of anti-West. The film feeds upon these great Western revisionists, and brings them to a new level of playing field (not necessarily “better” but certainly different).
In that sense, the warm colour palette and the tragimedy story go hand-in-hand. The frontier the old Westerns were set against was not the legendary landmarks that Monument Valley seems to propose; rather, it was a slow-boiling pot of people, with their own stories and goals, settling in a land already populated. The film recognizes this, and that is why the last shot is exactly the opposite of the last shot in The Searchers–instead of the camera capturing a lone gunman wandering back into the frontier through the doorway of a darkly-lit room, the lone gunman comes inside towards the camera, and the home is painted in bright white. It’s a strong, noticeable antithesis. It just understands how to handle that.