The Hero’s Journey in Slow West
The mythical archetypical elements are crucial not only for ancient sagas and other classical literature, but they also play an important role in construction of any narrative, including the plots of contemporary movies. These stages help to reveal the character’s transformation and highlight the psychological mood of the story. In 2015 film Slow West directed by John Maclean the hero, a youth named Jay Cavendish, goes through all the stages of the hero’s journey, but in the final act the filmmakers offer their own interpretation of the events which only enhances the general idea of the journey.
At first the hero lives in the Ordinary World. In case of Jay it was his rich and calm life as an heir of a rich father in Scotland. They had enough money and the future for him was quite predictable – to become similar to his father. However, Jay falls in love with a girl named Rose, but after her father accidentally kills Lord Cavendish, they have to escape to America. The world of Jay is crashed as he lost his love. As Voytilla writes, “The Call throws the Ordinary World off balance” and Jay feels the need to restore this balance by finding Rose.
The film does not pay special attention to the Refusal of the Call, but it is obvious that for a young man who is inexperienced and shy to start a journey to another continent without the support of his family is a difficult step. Therefore, despite the fact that the film does not tell anything about it, it is unlikely that Jay did not have any doubts concerning his decision to follow Rose. Nevertheless, he overcame his fears and went to America on his own.
Slow West is not a linear narrative and the stages are sometimes mixed in sequence. The film starts with the episode when Jay meets his mentor, a bounty hunter, Silas. “It's natural for heroes just arriving in the Special World to spend some time figuring out who can be trusted and relied upon for special services, and who is not to be trusted”. It is not very clear from the first scenes what kind of relations these people would have, but later it turns out that not only Silas was a teacher to Jay, but also vice versa as Jay managed to remind Silas of forgotten humanistic values.
The stage of Crossing the Threshold corresponds to the episode when Silas and Jay enter a shop to buy some things. There they meet a couple who wants to rob them and Jay, being sure that the girl would kill Silas, shoots her. According to Voytilla, “The Hero must confront an event that forces him to commit to entering the Special World, from which there is no turning back”. With murdering the girl Jay finally loses any chance to return to the Ordinary World as he did not only kill the woman, but agrees to leave her two little children in the wild.
The film clearly shows the necessity for the hero to understand more about allies, enemies and go through some ordeals. First of all, Jay is not totally sure in his mentor as Silas does not tell him all the truth about his goals. Moreover, they meet some members of the gang to which Silas once belonged and Jay is learning to feel the difference between good and bad intentions.
In the course of the journey Jay approaches the Inmost Cave and this stage is marked by “final preparations for the central ordeal of the adventure”. The filmmakers at this point include episodes that show how Rose is living with her father at a remote farm. They also draw the audience’s attention to the fact that she does not, in fact, misses Jay much and is in love with the Indian man who helps them. It means that the viewers understand that Jay would have to face a very painful ordeal in the future when (and if) he finds Rose.
The main ordeal for Jay is the episode when they approach Rose’s house simultaneously with the gang who wants to get reward for catching her. Silas wants to save Jay from the imminent danger of his last ordeal by tying him to the tree, but there is nothing that can stop Jay and he frees himself and runs to the house to protect Rose. He rushes into the house where Rose desperately tries to protect herself from the gang and Rose kills him as she does not have time to understand who enters her house. The most important aspect of this ordeal is that Rose does not even notice that it was Jay and Jay understands that it is not the meeting that he hoped for. Therefore, it is obvious that the hero physically dies at the stage of ordeal, but in fact his journey is not finished.
Part B of the second act and the third act of the hero’s journey are more symbolic and metaphorical in this movie than real. Seeing Rose is the biggest reward for Jay, even if he understands that she does not wait for him. The filmmakers pay particular attention to the expression of Jay’s eyes when he sits next to the wall and watches Rose. He is aware that he will die soon, but he dies a happy person who is united with his love.
The Road Back for Jay is likely to be his physical death. He came to the Special World and now left it. The next stages of his journey are rather connected with the spirit of the hero and his impact on the people he loved. When Silas enters the house and sees dead Jay, he says that his spirit was in the right place, so it is not his physical body that resurrects, but his soul. Vogler writes, “One function of Resurrection is to cleanse heroes of the smell of death, yet help them retain the lessons of the ordeal”. Jay clearly learns the lessons of this ordeal, but the way cleansing is interpreted is rather unusual. This “smell of death” is gone as Jay actually dies and stops suffering. The stage of bringing back the elixir is shown in the final shots of the film where the audience sees that Silas and Rose live together and adopted the children of the woman Jay killed. Therefore, Jay brought the elixir to the people he loved and made their life happy. He helps Silas to finish his journey as well and turn from a murdered into a decent and respected person who loves and is loved. His efforts are not forgotten and Silas keeps the memories about Jay deep in his heart.
All things considered, Slow West is a very interesting and thought-provoking example of interpreting the hero’s journey in modern cinema. The protagonist of this film goes through all the stages of this journey, but it is evident that the filmmakers do not follow the traditional rules and treat final stages as spiritual symbols rather than real events. However, all the stages play a crucial role in the development of the plot and communicating the messages of the film to the audience.