At Sundance: SLOW WEST
By Jacob Krueger
In this series of short articles, I’ll be looking at some of the movies I’ve seen at Sundance that I think are valuable to screenwriters, and breaking down what you can learn from them.
Today we’re going to be talking about Slow West, the new Western with Michael Fassbender.
Slow West is a Western love story. Jay is a teenage boy, who has left Scotland to travel alone across the Wild West of 1871, in search of his lost love, Rose.
Of course, Jay is completely unprepared for what he’s going to experience, and no sooner has he set off on his journey than he is nearly killed by a bunch of white Indian hunters, only to be saved by a guy who might be even worse—an amoral bounty hunter named Silas, played by Michael Fassbender.
In exchange for money, Silas agrees to keep Jay alive on his journey toward his one true love. But what Jay doesn’t know is that there is a $2000 bounty on Rose’s head, and that in following his heart in this way, he is unwittingly leading not only Silas, but also a whole other gang of bounty hunters directly toward their prey.
For screenwriters, what I think is most interesting about Slow West is the way it plays with tone—juxtaposing some of the harshest, bloodiest Western realism with a self referential, comic, almost fairytale like tone.
It sure is interesting to watch, especially since it grows thematically out of the juxtaposition of these two world views: Jay, who believes that the West is a place of hope ruled by love, and Silas, who believes that the West is a place of only greed and violence, where love and empathy do not exist, and anyone you meet (including him) would happily kill you for a dollar.
In a way, Silas and Jay’s becomes a metaphor for America’s journey from the 1870’s to the present—how a trail of dead bodies, genocide, greed and violence ultimately lead to our hopeful future, even if we didn’t get there in the way we expected.
But what makes this movie so valuable to writers is actually a moment at the very end, which pulls the real story into perspective, and shows us what writer-director John Maclean is really building here.
Spoiler alert: you may not want to read this if you haven’t seen the movie!
The final scene of Slow West is a truly extraordinary shoot-out sequence that takes place at Rose’s cabin. Tied to a tree by Silas, who is actually trying to keep him alive, Jay is forced to watch helplessly as three groups of bounty hunters descend on the woman he loves.
By this point, through his relationship with Jay, Silas has begun to believe in love again, and uses his opportunity not to kill Rose, but to warn her. Unfortunately, no sooner has he done this than the gunfire erupts and he gets caught in the crossfire.
If you’re a writer who wants to learn to write low budget action, you should study the shootout that follows, which is extraordinary not only for its brutal and heart pumping excitement but also for the character work that’s being done along the way. By the time it’s over, unarmed Jay has broken loose from the tree where he was tied, risked his life racing through the corn as gunfire erupts all around him, burst into Rose’s cabin…
Only to be shot right through the heart by the woman he loves!
Rose doesn’t even notice that it’s him she’s just shot. She simply reloads, turns to the window and continues the fight.
In one of its fabulous darkly comic and self-referential sequences, the dying Jay watches as Rose exchanges a last kiss with the man she actually loves, a native American man who has bravely sacrificed his life for hers, whispering the most high falutin’ thematic line she’s got “…until civilization comes.”
Just in case you think the writer/director is taking this seriously, at the moment of their kiss, a bullet shatters a mason jar of salt, which falls directly into the main character’s wound, literally adding “salt to the wound” of the main character.
It’s not until Rose – who turns out to be more than capable of defending herself and a far cry from the damsels in distress so common in the Western genre – has disposed of all the bounty hunters that she finally recognizes Jay, comes over, and holds his hand as he dies.
But what follows is not the powerfully tragic reunion of two lovers we’ve been expecting. Silas, barely alive, hobbles through the door, and tells Rose how Jay followed his heart all the way across the world for her.
“His heart was in the wrong place.” Rose responds, with all the emotion of a girl who really wishes some guy would just get the message and leave her alone.
And that’s when you realize what this movie is really about on a personal level—not what it means to move from wild west to civilization, not what it means to hold onto hope in the face of a violent world, but what it feels like to be in love with someone who barely even knows you exist. What it feels like to be willing to sacrifice everything or even die for someone who doesn’t love you back, and maybe doesn’t even care about you at all.
And that’s the moment when suddenly all this odd juxtaposition of tone suddenly starts to make sense—when you realize the writer is both laughing at his (or his character’s) own ridiculousness, at the same time he still feels the agony of that unrequited love—just as anyone who ever has been in a relationship like this has felt.
And this is the fabulous thing about writing from a place of emotional truth. Because once you learn how to do so, you can write absolutely anything, no matter how far removed from your experience.
It’s how a modern day British writer like Maclean can tap into the story of an American West he never witnessed. And it’s how you can truthfully tap into any character, and find your structure, tone, and themes within any genre, simply by capturing what it felt like to you at that moment.
In this case, I can only assume, it felt like being in an overmatched battle in the wild west, a mixture of laughing at yourself and suffering the agony of a cruel world. And ultimately holding onto the hope of a better future, even as you look back on a horribly unfair past.
Ultimately, Rose and Silas end up together. Not a marriage of love necessarily, but one of two people who fit together, in a way that she and Jay never could. And though their love, and their future, like ours, is built on a trail of literal and metaphorical dead bodies, it is nonetheless a story of hope… and of holding on to our idealism, even as we look back on our mistakes.