A neo-western that operates in purely mythic terms, Slow West evokes an 1870 America steeped in isolation, heartbreak, suffering, and misery. Expertly written and directed by John Maclean, this spartan story recounts the efforts of well-to-do young Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who travels to America — and westward, ho! — to find the girl he loves (but does not love him back), Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Along his journey, he is saved by, and then forced to pay for, the bodyguard services of Silas (a stoic Michael Fassbender), a quiet-spoken roughneck with a cigar perpetually stuck in the corner of his mouth and a curious interest in Jay’s quest that, it’s soon revealed, stems from his own desire to find Rose — who, unbeknownst to Jay, has a $2,000 bounty on her head.
Maclean establishes his tale with minimal dialogue and oblique flashbacks, so that each subsequent development seems to arise out of some strange, half-awake, half-dreaming state. Employing largely static imagery, his cinematography is marked by semi-smeary, hyper-saturated colors that steep the action in sumptuous, surrealistic splendor. Evoking a more bare-bones variation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’s style, Slow West moves through picturesque desert plains and forests with an ominous patience that often tips the material into absurdist comedy. Highly attuned to the terrifying grandeur of its milieu, it discovers, at every turn, a wondrously frightening new sight to behold, none greater than that of Ben Mendelsohn’s bandit leader Payne emerging from, and disappearing into, the wild landscape while wearing a big bearskin coat. An embodiment of the country’s animalistic spirit, Mendelsohn’s primal villain is the polar opposite of Smit-McPhee’s civilized traveler, with Fassbender’s reformed outlaw caught in the middle of Slow West’s tragic push-pull between the past and the future.
Viggo Mortensen finds himself similarly trapped in a purgatorial state in Far From Men, David Oelhoffen’s beautiful, melancholy drama about a French teacher named Daru (Mortensen) who runs a remote school amid the mountains in 1954 Algeria. Daru’s tranquil existence is upended when he’s tasked by his former military brethren — now engaged in war with Algerian rebels seeking independence — with transporting an Arab man named Mohamed (Reda Kateb) to a far-off police station. Mohamed’s crime is murdering his cousin, though that soon becomes a secondary concern to Daru, who reluctantly takes up this mission and is promptly accosted by angry French farmers looking to use Mohamed as a scapegoat for their own grievances, and then is captured by Algerian forces led by one of Daru’s prior comrades. Marked by images in which the two travelers are dwarfed by their imposing surroundings, as well as the sound of the wind scraping against the barren landscape, Far From Men crafts a haunting atmosphere of alienation for its story of outcasts forging an unlikely bond. Its plotting is often a tad too plodding, but with the charismatic Mortensen exuding understated internal crisis (in a French- and Arabic-speaking role), Oelhoffen’s film proves a compelling portrait of individuals striving to cope with, and at least somewhat overcome, cultural dislocation.