Slow West is Scottish musician John Maclean’s debut film, a quirky Western starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender. Jed Kurzel composes a simple yet poignant score that makes a notable footprint in the film. Along with the narrative, the score develops the tone of the film while slowly putting the puzzle pieces together of Maclean’s story.
One of the film’s major themes is that things are not always what they appear to be. The narrative, through its various flashbacks and disjunct storytelling, continually defies expectations. Kurzel’s score defies expectations of its own – or, more accurately, creates ambiguous expectations. Upon meeting Jay (Smit-McPhee), a series of present-day scenes are spliced together with flashbacks with Rose (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves. At the beginning of the film, the flashbacks imply that their love is requited, but the music neither confirms nor denies that implication. Jay’s Theme is a jaunty Americana waltz, established by pizzicato strings and a guile guitar solo. The feel of the music is spirited and dance-like, but when the cello comes in with a languid countermelody, the mood becomes confused. Along with the harmonies – which are overly minor brightened by some major predominant chords – the music conjures uncertainty. Is their love story a happy or sad one? Maclean and Kurzel, when introducing the main character and his journey through the American West, leave the audience with more mystery than clarity, effectively engaging them with curiosity.
To that end, the score, as per the film’s name, slowly develops throughout the film in tone. Since most of the action is Jay and Silas (Fassbender) drifting west, the score – which consists mainly of guitar and strings – plods along, sounding just like how it must feel to journey west, little by little. This traveling music has a buoyant and impish feel, which sometimes conflicts with more lyrical and sustained countermelodies, like in Jay’s Theme. As the film plays out, the music loses that perky nature and adopts more and more sustain. Similarly, the harmonies also lose some of the hopeful progressions and remain mostly dark, very reminiscent of Clint Mansell’s extraordinary score for The Fountain. The gradual commitment to darker music develops at the same pace that the narrative gradually unfolds the true nature of Jay and Rose’s relationship. It isn’t until the very end, when Silas escapes a life of mere survival that the music turns lighter and brighter with the jovial end credits track ‘Slow West’.
The soundtrack itself is constructed by alternating between dialogue from the film and tracks from the score. Often, the line of dialogue is meant to introduce the following track of music. This soundtrack structure continually brings the listener back to the film, along with its images and various contexts, and it discourages listeners from experiencing the music separate from the film. Kurzel’s score is beautiful and gritty, a perfect companion to Maclean’s film. While very simple, the music goes hand-in-hand with the narrative to tell Jay’s story in a refreshingly indirect and quirky approach.
Slow West is out now on CD and digital from Lakeshore Records