The director John Maclean created the film titled Slow West in 2015. It tells a story of a young boy who comes from Scotland to America to find the girl he loves. This film is set in the decorations of a classical Western but, in fact, it is a complex and multidimensional work of art that requires deep and thorough analysis. Slow West was awarded the Sundance Institute World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic Winner. This film is a perfect illustration of creative and thought-provoking usage of cinematography principles related to mise-en-scene organization, which explore the themes of survival and coming of age.
The plot of the movie develops around two main characters – Jay, a boy from Scotland, and an experienced as well as tough hunter and killer named Silas. This “tale of murder and survival in the old west” outlines many themes but the value of life and difficulties connected with coming of age seem to be the most significant aspects of the movie. In general, the scheme shown in Slow West is quite typical – a young boy faces cruelty and violence when trying to move across the borders of the boyhood and reach the world of adults. However, the repercussions of this classical coming-of-age journey are rather unexpected. On the contrary, the deaths he sees and the violence that penetrates every corner of this Western world make him even more childish than he is at the beginning. It does not mean that he simply rejects the reality but Jay makes his choice – he chooses morality, honesty, and devotion instead of “growing up” and becoming similar to Silas and the majority of other characters. These closely interrelated and interdependent themes of survival in the cruel world and coming into the adulthood are portrayed in Slow West with a variety of visual cinematographic elements such as acting style, setting, costumes, lighting, and many others. All these aspects are related to the construction of powerful and impressive mise-en-scenes that are considered to be significant visual elements of any film.
The approach that the filmmakers apply to the mise-en-scene organization and arrangement plays a crucial role in making the main ideas and themes of the movie to be presented to the audience. It is obvious that the acting style usually dominates this sphere. It is important to note that the performances of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender base on a deep psychological analysis of the characters. It is their acting that creates the visual canvas of the whole film making the audience follow the development of the plot with great interest. The performance style, which the majority of actors including the leading ones employ in this film, also allows the filmmakers to draw the attention of the viewers to the powerful visual metaphors that contribute to the analysis of the main themes. For instance, the actors make the episode, in which Silas shaves Jay, extremely sincere and, at the same time, psychologically complex. The act of shaving symbolizes simultaneously Jay’s coming of age and his refusal to accept the form of adult’s masculinity that is associated with unshaved bristles common among tough killers and hunters whom Jay meets on his way. It is necessary to highlight the achievements of Kodi Smit-McPhee since it is primarily his acting that helps the filmmaker to create the powerful visual and psychological contrast between a naive soul who manages to preserve moral values and those people who succeed in the game of survival but lose the understanding of what it is to be humane.
Proper organization of mise-en-scene is a very complex process that cannot be conducted with the help of acting exclusively. The specific choice of setting that helps to communicate the ideas of the filmmakers at the visual level plays an important role in it. Despite the fact that the filmmakers preferred to shoot the whole film in one place, they managed to find the elements of the visual language that could intensify the story of Jay’s moral coming of age. It is, first of all, the powerful contrast between the cold but naive landscapes of Scotland that are paralleled with the birth of Jay’s love to the girl and the hot lands of America where both the weather and the environment are supposed to harden him. In one of the episodes, closer to the end of the film, when the atmosphere becomes quite critical, and Silas with Jay appear to find themselves in a lock, the leader of Silas’ former gang looks into the sky and draws everybody’s attention to the coming storm. This storm is a symbol of future danger that usually accompanies the process of coming of age. Therefore, the setting, which the filmmakers chose, functioned as a complex symbolic net that united all the mise-en-scenes of the movie into the one harmonious system.
Another powerful visual component of all mise-en-scenes is the choice of costumes that the actors wear. Since the events of the movie happened at the second half of the nineteenth century, it was necessary for the costume designers to take a close look at the typical fashion of that period. However, considering the peculiarities of the characters, it was obvious that the costumes did not require any elaborate detalization or complex textures. The majority of the persons seen in the film are either hunters or killers or just the commoners but all of them suffer from the corrosive impact of the hot and destructive environment. The filmmakers also try to argue that the processes of “hardening” and destruction happen both at the outer level of clothes and at the inner level when the person’s moral values are deformed. Probably, the best examples of this visual deformation are the changes that happened with Jay’s clothes in the course of the film. At first, he was often shown in his decent Scottish clothing made of expensive fabrics that the west weather has already spoilt but that was still in rather good condition. However, closer to the end of the film, they transform into the complete rags. It is a very thought-provoking detail since in contrast to other characters, Jay manages to keep his “inner level” safe and protected from the negative impact. Another metaphorical mise-en-scene related to the costumes is the one, in which Jay and Silas try to wash them and dry. It is a very significant episode since it shows that these two characters make attempts to remain “clean” in the world where the moral “dirt” dominates.
Lighting, although, is not such a visible element as setting or costumes are but it also makes significant contribution to the process of mise-en-scene organization. One of the critics argues that “Maclean’s film swaps between tones with consummate ease”, and this statement can perfectly relate both to the psychological atmosphere of the movie and the technical visual work connected with lighting. There are many scenes in the film, in which the changes in lighting symbolize important aspects connected with the main themes discussed in Slow West. For example, the house where Jay’s beloved girl lives is always shown in very light colors with rays of the sun coming into the windows. It is done in this manner because for Jay the place where Rose lives is like the paradise, and he exerts every effort to get closer to this ideal. On the contrary, the episodes, in which the violence is abundant, are usually filmed in a very low key to match the darkness of the human souls. It is especially true for the mise-en-scenes focused on the members of Silas’ former gang.
All things considered, the theme of survival and accompanying coming of age are mainly revealed in Slow West due to the special mise-en-scenes organization. To construct them in the desired and maximally impressive way, the filmmakers apply a range of visual elements such as setting, costumes, lighting, and, probably, what is the most important, acting style. All these aspects allow the filmmakers to ask difficult and thought-provoking questions about the moral price of the survival and the nature of the metaphorical relations between the boyhood and adulthood. This unique combination of elements creates powerful atmosphere that totally justifies the award of the Sundance festival that this film received. Slow West is truly a wonderful example of the appliance of the contemporary creative approach to the interpretation of old but still very important and topical themes.