For perhaps the first hour of Slow West it’s not entirely clear where writer/director John Maclean is taking us. We follow our sixteen year-old Scottish hero, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as he arrives in America’s West in search of his sweetheart, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who was forced to flee to the frontier with her father after an incident back home. Almost killed during a run-in with some soldiers, Jay is rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), a gruff and cool outlaw who agrees to protect Jay on his journey for a fee. What follows is a surreal, episodic pseudo-road film on horseback as the two traverse the dangerous and lawless continent in search of Rose. With sudden comical shoot-outs, escape attempts, absinthe trips and attacks from the locals to keep them busy, the pair develop an almost-friendship, while Silas keeps his ulterior motives from Jay – Rose and her father have a bounty on their head, and Jay is leading Silas right to them.
Slow West sets up a typically tragic romantic hero – Jay has traveled halfway across the world in pursuit of his love, and will find her come hell or high water. If written contemporaneously, Jay might be the protagonist of a John Green novel, or if he were ten years older, a Cameron Crowe film. However, Maclean hints early on that perhaps Rose might not be as keen as Jay, with flashbacks to their time in Scotland showing a woman gently rebuffing his advances rather than passionately reciprocating.
This foreshadowing is gentle but nigglingly persistent, and builds to the moment of what would, in a convention boy-wins-girl plot, be a sweepingly romantic reunion. It does not, however, go quite as planned: Jay and Silas arrive at Rose’s new prairie home in the midst of a huge firefight as a group of fellow outlaws and bounty hunters descend on the cottage, led by the inimitable and fur-coat-clad Ben Mendelsohn. Jay is caught in the crossfire, and Rose barely registers his arrival, with salt quite literally rubbed into his wounds. While Silas tells her that Jay loved her with all his heart, she simply replies that his heart was in the wrong place. In one swift gesture, John Maclean inverts the romantic-hero-of-his-own-tragedy narrative and gives us a strong, and far more interesting woman who knows her own mind and does not exist purely to reward Jay’s emotional and physical journey. It is deeply satisfying to watch.
Slow West is confident, off-kilter and fun, with a score from Jed Kurzel providing plucked, cheerful accompaniment to the pairs’ exploits. Shot in New Zealand, the film features some truly beautiful vistas and some truly shocking violence, all presented with note-perfect deadpan timing that hammers home the dangerous nature of the world without dropping the pace or losing the irreverent tone. Characters die, shoot and are killed with a brutal and random regularity, but there are moments of genuine pathos – a pair of children orphaned by one such encounter, or Silas’ internal struggle the knowledge he keeps from Jay.
The script is sparse and effective, and lends itself to Fassbender’s stoic cowboy. Fassbender is wholly entertaining and engaging as Silas, with Smit-McPhee sitting comfortably at the film’s emotional core until he is ripped from it by his own delusions. Caren Pistorius only really comes into her own in the film’s final act, but does so with a vengeance, providing a centred and self-assured performance. Rory McCann, known to most as Game of Thrones‘ The Hound, is excellent in a small role, and Ben Mendelsohn makes for an excellent villain – somewhat less camp than his recent turn in Exodus: Gods and Kings, but having so much more fun.
At 83 minutes, Slow West is not a huge time investment, but it is well worth the time, packing plenty of punches, a gratifying resolution, and offering a promising directorial debut from Maclean.
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