Slow West, 2015.
Written and Directed by John Maclean.
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann and Stewart Bowman.
A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as guide.
The western film is dead say some, a lost art of genre that very rarely makes the mustard with Hollywood these days amongst the multi-million pound extravaganza’s that are slowly clogging up cinemas quicker than you can say Fast & Furious. But the myth that westerns just don’t work in modern cinema is a ridiculous premise. Anyone who saw Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman last year will agree that when they are done right and with care and love, they are marvellously entertaining and cling to an old-fashioned part of cinema that is slowly, and sadly, being eradicated.
Debutant director John Maclean continues the fascination with the western with his quietly effective fable Slow West, about the lost love amongst the bandits and horses of 19th Century America. Young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old Scotsman is torn from his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), a beautiful young daughter of a wanted fugitive who has a sizeable bounty on his head, and by extension now Rose’s head too. Unaware of the high-stakes involved in his long quest, Jay packs light, clinging to the limitless power of his feelings towards his beloved that he isn’t prepared for the dark, murky turns across his arduous journey, especially when he is set upon by one of a number of bandits and thieves that roam the green depths of the forests. His feelings of the all-conquering idea of destiny are further enhanced when he is saved by gunslinger Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to chaperone Jay to his destination, despite his own agenda: to find his beloved and her father and keep the excessive bounty on their heads for his own.
What is obvious from the outset of Slow West is that Maclean is in no immediate rush to tell his story, choosing an aptly-thought-out title to hammer the point home that this isn’t the gun-touting, on-horse-chasing effort of the more epic of classic westerns. This is a measured, thoughtful westerner as if made by The Coen’s or the aforementioned Lee Jones that wants you to spend time with its characters as well as the beauty of what surrounds them. It’s still as unforgiving in parts, mind, with the starkness of the surroundings and the uncompromising nature of those who trundle along the rough terrain still front and centre throughout the film. Indeed, there is just enough gun-slinging action and a surprising humour to keep those expecting a meandering bore, with two sequences in particular which are both muscular and beautifully constructed and by Maclean and his photographer Robbie Ryan. Indeed, the whole film is shot wonderfully and is one of the film’s highlights.
In addition, the film has the double whammy tag-team of Smit-McPhee and Fassbender at its heart and both once again continue to show their talents as the offbeat “partners in crime”. Set for superstardom alongside Fassbender again in next summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Smit-McPhee’s lost but besotted and determined Jay plays well off of the gruff but charismatic Silas, which once again proves why Fassbender is one of the top actors working in (and out) of Hollywood right now. Ben Mendelsohn also continues his impressive body of work here, while Caren Pistorius, in the infancy of her career, proves a match for the boys in the cast and is certainly one to watch.
That said, despite all the positivity of the film, the main core of the film does feel underdeveloped and slight. It has all the right ingredients to make what would easily be one of the year’s truly brilliant cinema experiences with its look and feel, but at short 88-minute run-time, it certainly gets in and gets out rather suddenly and leaves a few unanswered questions, questions could be put down to a slight naivety in Maclean’s debut story, but you can’t break the niggling feeling that there was much more that could have been explored.
While it is held back by a screenplay that isn’t quite fully fledged, it’s hard to deny the beauty and power of Slow West. It looks stunning throughout and manages to maintain a compelling mix of all things guns, horses and the outback with a sprinkling of dark humour to keep you entertained, with the addition of two wonderful lead performances to give you an extra incentive to seek Slow West out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★