Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura IngallsWilder is about 150 pages too long, and spends a lot more time with Laura’s daughter Rose than I expected or desired. But the first third of the book, with the Ingalls family and Laura as a young adult, was quite illuminating. (Great Scott am I glad I don’t live on the prairie in the late 1800s!)
The Little House novels and TV show were, shall we say, not quite accurate. But they certainly contain a grain of truth, as Fraser writes about the Ingalls family’s time in Kansas in 1870-71:
In a brief and concentrated span of time, the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid. Although they would retreat for a time to Wisconsin, an enduring impression had been made, one that would strengthen over the years as the family moved. From the open doorway of a tiny log cabin, Laura had watched as a parade of Western iconography passed by. It was as if the spirit of manifest destiny had been imprinted in her memory, leaving a series of stereoscopic images, each more dramatic than the one before, each intensely experienced and utterly unique, yet emblematic of all western settlement. The family spent little more than a year on the Kansas prairie, but it shaped her temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.
Another quote rang relevant to today. Powell, a Civil War hero and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, warned that the West (today’s Great Plains states) was too arid for farming and spelled bankruptcy for farmers. He advocated cooperative irrigation and grazing schemes, but “bonanza farms” promoted by Big Business at the time offered get-rick-quick fantasies that were much more alluring:
Fundamentally, the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear to anyone reading the newspapers: fantasy won. In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators in its pocket brushed Powell’s analysis aside. Railroads were not about to capitulate to the geologist’s limited vision, and his plans as director of the U.S. Geological Survey to limit western settlement would be undermined by intense political attacks. James B. Power, land agent for the Northern Pacific—who had earlier admitted that Dakota was a “barren desert”—dismissed Powell as an elite intellectual, lacking the experience of “practical men.” “No reliance can be placed upon any of his statements as to the agricultural value of any country,” Power said. For good measure, he called the geologist “an ass.”
The refrain from Thomas Hood’s nineteenth century poem “The Haunted House” stands out not only because it appears about halfway through Slow West, John Mclean’s darkly funny reverie of a western, but because its final line—“The place is Haunted!”—breaks the iambic pentameter the poem employs throughout the rest of its eighty-five stanzas. Such a break jars the listener out of the steady rhythm they’ve been lulled into and calls abrupt attention to whatever the line proclaims. It’s a fitting reference in Slow West, a film whose moments of flashbang severity disrupt the steady gait of a young man’s westward quest for redemption and grace within a world reluctant to give them.
It’s haunted, the place we wind our way through. The barren plains and pined mountains of 1870 Colorado are unforgiving to Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teenaged Scottish patrician who, anguished in unrequited love and unresolved guilt, ventures through the wild American West for another chance to win over Rose (Caren Pistorius), a commoner’s daughter who back in Scotland had playfully rebuffed Jay’s declaration of love. “These violent delights have violent ends,” she’d told him (quoting Romeo & Juliet) with a smile and a sisterly nudge. But to Jay it’s a gut-punch, and it clearly haunts him when we meet him: lying on a blanket beside an extinguished campfire, stargazing, calling out constellations by name and pinpointing their stars with his revolver. He seems to be harnessing the heavens to his quest. The scene calls to mind the first stanza of Hood’s “The Haunted House”:
Some dreams we have are nothing else but dreams, Unnatural, and full of contradictions; Yet others of our most romantic schemes Are something more than fictions.
This serves as a kind of establishing shot for what follows, both in the poem and the film, where the characters’ dreams of every kind often presage reality like violent premonitions.
Jay trudges on alone through rough terrain and the smoldering remains of torched Indian camps, haunted by memories of Rose and his role in her forced exile. Soon, finding himself in a harrowing spot, a cloaked mystery man—later revealed as the bounty hunter Silas Selleck, himself an immigrant from the British Isles played by Michael Fassbender—relieves Jay of this precarious situation and elects himself (for a fee) chaperone of this vulnerable boy.
So westward they go together on a plodding course, Jay suspicious of Silas’ motives and Silas, a taciturn mercenary, irritated by Jay’s starry-eyed chatter. Quickly the dynamic between them reveals itself when Silas asks about Rose:
“She’s a beauty,” Jay says. “And she does not waste words. They tumble out, wit following wisdom.”
“You haven’t bedded her, have you?” Silas responds with a chuckle.
“You’re a brute,” Jay retorts.
A brute, it turns out, who learns something Jay doesn’t while stopping at a trading post: that Rose and her father have a $2,000 bounty on their heads, dead or alive, for what they fled their homeland for. Perfect fodder for a bounty hunter being led right to his prey.
But along the way the facade of Silas’ gruff exterior, forged by the toil of surviving the West’s hardscrabble life, begins to crack. He grows fond of Jay. Of his innocence, of his willingness to brave a new unknown world for the sake of unlikely love. And soon, after fixating on the pencil sketch of Rose on her “Wanted” poster, he grows fond of her too, or at least the idea of her and the idyllic life she could represent.
The movie’s odd-couple dynamic shines brightest in the darkest moments. More than once Silas stares down a gun pointed at his head while maintaining the tempered serenity of a man very familiar with death. Jay, though highly determined, lacks the weathered wisdom of a gun-for-hire like Silas, and is often victimized by the desperate circumstances around him.
We see this in a scene of the pair curving through an eerily quiet forest considered by the locals to be haunted. The sun creeping through the canopy, Jay, perhaps in a bout of superstition, recites from Psalm 91:
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
Silas, considerably less pious, cuts in with a timely invocation of the refrain from “The Haunted House”:
O’er all there hung a shadow and a fear; A sense of mystery the spirit daunted, And said, as plain as whisper in the ear, The place is Haunted!
They couldn’t have been more right. What happens after that sets the stage for a climactic set piece that’s at once a wryly fatalistic conclusion and a searing, clear-eyed accounting of all the loss and destruction Jay’s mission—and by proxy the wild west itself—had wrought.
The occasional showy shot aside, Slow West is exceptionally well-crafted, deliberate in the best way, and concerned about portraying its humans as such, and not as plastic figurines in a cowboy-themed Playmobil set. They are flesh and grit, have dirty fingers and often die ingloriously. They’re brazenly self-serving, out to make a buck or get ahead at any cost, or just survive. Even our young protagonist Jay, with his nobleman’s comportment, is impertinent and brash, prone to bouts of high-minded hauteur at poorly chosen times.
The music in Slow West, composed by Jed Kurzel, accompanies the action only when necessary and is as spartan as the film’s running time. Maclean savvily weaves in the throbbing strings beneath key moments, but also allows other moments to unfold in the harsh, spare silence of reality. Despite what we’ve seen in countless westerns, real shootouts aren’t underscored by an orchestra or a triumphant brass theme. The whip-crack of the revolver’s hammer, the whistle of an airborne arrow, the thud of a bullet into flesh, the crackling of a destructive fire in a soft wind: these are the sounds of death in the West, and Maclean wisely let’s them tell a lot of this story.
Other reviews of Slow West have called attention to its stylistic similarities to more well-known filmmakers like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. At times it did remind me of the best parts of the Coen Brothers’ rendition of True Grit. But I’ll happily take Slow West on its own terms, unbeholden to its predecessors. It’s good enough to stand on its own, and it deserves to.