The Western, for a time, would bring to mind connotations of dusty old John Wayne films, not often in vogue like in yesteryear; it would however have a revival throughout cinema, particularly from the Coen Brothers with True Grit and No Country for Old Men and was reincarnated recently in Mad Max: Fury Road. Themes of alienation, revenge, redemption and the history of the landscape of America continue to attract filmmakers and once in a while, a film comes along to reinvigorate the genre and breathe life into the ole west. One time Beta Band member/Writer/Director John Maclean manages to do that with his sophomore effort Slow West which is one of the most confident debuts in recent years.
It’s 1870 and Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has left his homeland of Scotland to traverse the wild trails of Colorado in search of the girl he loves Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has fled with her father after a fatal incident. Floundering in the outback, he is ‘rescued’ by a seasoned but deadly traveller named Silas (Michael Fassbender) who offers to take him to wherever he wants to get to in exchange for all the money Jay possesses. The two embark upon a perilous journey however Jay is unaware that Rose’s enforced exile has acquired a bounty for her and her father, which has attracted a host of undesirables and also that Silas has his own hidden agenda.
Early word suggested that Slow West was a European navel gazing affair and whilst there are moments of poetic surrealism akin to Jim Jarmusch, it feels like the meeting point between the classic and contemporary Western. It combines archetypal elements of the genre- bands of outlaws, a bounty to collect and a quintessential shoot out but also adds the lyricism and dark humour of a post modern version. And despite the title, the film is a taut paced piece that utilises its slim running time, allowing the camera to linger on the gorgeous cinematography when needed but then tightening in on tense and revealing encounters. Amongst these is a scene where Jay meets a welcoming pioneer called Werner (Andrew Robert) and another in a remote store with a damaging outcome, each altercation serves to show the enormity of the situation that Jay is naïve to. Believing he is on the noblest of quests, to rescue his one true love, Jay is ill-equipped for life on the trail, Kodi Smith-McPhee with a convincing Scottish accent, plays the role with wide-eyed honesty, admirable yet innocently deluded and looking like a soulful version of Jay Buruchel. Michael Fassbender is on charismatic form as Silas, a magnetic presence who takes control of the screen and the actions that unfold, his narration of the film and the fact that we, as the audience, are privy to his motives suggests that we are perhaps more on his journey, rather than Jays. Meanwhile Ben Mendelsohn makes the most of his screen time, clad in the best onscreen coat since Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year and brandishing absinthe with leftfield menace as Silas’ former gang leader Payne. John Maclean’s direction is so assured and accomplished that it is hard not to be envious that this is his first feature, with echoes of the Coen Brothers, his film is smothered in barren elegance but also peppered with moments of black humour and shards of violence that would make Tarantino proud. It also manages to buck the obvious narrative course that many Westerns follow so we are never sure how the shoot out is going to eventually play out. Inventive, expressive and anchored by great performances, this is how the Slow West has won.