The adjective in the title is certainly an honest one: for most of its modest running-time, John Maclean’s western proceeds at a snail’s pace, concentrating on artful images punctuated by pseudo-profound epigrams and ostentatiously literary monologues rather more often than on action. It does rouse itself at a few points, particularly at the close, where it offers up a lengthy shoot-out at an isolated cabin; but even that seems designed primarily to show off the skill of Mclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan in arranging dead bodies in arresting compositions.

Death, in fact, is the central subject of “Slow West,” the recurrent reality of the brutal, unforgiving if often beautiful region where the film is set. True, it’s conjoined with love—Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scotsman who’s travelling to Colorado, even comments to a trio of black musicians he encounters at one point along the way that “love is universal, like death”—but in the end it’s the latter that’s triumphant. (Another digression involves a lengthy tale about a would-be outlaw, anxious to get his picture on a wanted poster, who charges a friend with killing a man to get one himself.) The film ends, to be sure, on a strangely homey note, but what remains in the mind will be the montage of corpses arrayed for us immediately before that postscript.

Cavendish is a callow young immigrant out of place in in the wilds where we find him, gazing dreamily at the stars—a fish totally out of water in the hostile west of the 1870s. He’s come to America in pursuit of his love Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled their homeland with her father (Cory McCann) after a deadly
incident that Jay feels responsible for and are now hiding out in Colorado, sought by bounty-hunters like the histrionic Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s festooned with the hides of animals he’s slaughtered. Jay wouldn’t survive the Indians and kill-happy whites long without the intervention of Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a mysterious stranger who offers to become his protector and guide—for a price. Silas also serves as the film’s narrator, adding commentary designed to give Jay’s story a universality whose heavy-handedness is only partially obscured by the ostentatious nature of the camerawork with which it’s told.

The picture is essentially a series of episodes that point up the cruelty of the environment in which Cavendish finds himself. He and Silas stop at a lonely general store, where they’re interrupted by an immigrant couple who try to rob the place but are killed in the process, leaving their pathetic children orphaned; savage Indians are wiped out by bloodthirsty gunmen, but others try to steal Silas and Jay’s horses; a bounty hunter dresses up as a preacher to put his intended victim at ease; and when Cavendish tries desperately to save the girl he loves, he rushes headlong toward disaster, taking others along with him. The coda suggests, however, that the wildness of the west is at least beginning to be tamed, which connects with the typically poetic observation of an anthropologist studying Indian culture whom Jay stumbles upon during the journey that “in a short time, this will be a long time ago.”

Maclean and Ryan serve up their painterly portrayal of a violent past with craft and care; some of the compositions they create—like an image of a mushroom that Cavendish comes upon, shot upward from behind the fungus, which looms like a huge edifice in the foreground of the frame—are extraordinary. But they also seem affected, flourishes meant simply to call attention to themselves. The actors are also used primarily as bits of furniture to be moved about for artistic effect. Blank-faced Smit-McPhee is often shot looking up at the sky, studying the stars in dazed wonderment, and Fassbender does what amounts to a Clint Eastwood routine chomping on his cigar, though he lacks the laconic quality of the man with no name. Mendelsohn puts some hammy swagger into the role the nasty bounty hunter and Pistorius shows some welcome energy as a girl with far more spine—and less bleary romanticism—than the fellow who’s chasing after her, but everyone else in the cast seems designed to be iconic in one way or another.

“Slow West” offers some breathtaking images—courtesy largely of the New Zealand locations—along the way to its bloody conclusion. Whether the hallucinatory beauty of the visuals is enough to compensate for its narrative pretensions is, however, doubtful.