slow_west_4Year: 2015
Director: John Maclean
Writer(s): John Maclean
Region of Origin: UK, US
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 84 mins

Synopsis: 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 a guide. (Source)

John Maclean’s Slow West comes off as something of an anti-western. Everything you want from the genre is in here, but it’s never given to us in the way that’d we’d expect, subverting stereotypes and even somber human themes. Maclean’s going for a more lyrical and existential approach here, with a slower pace (hey, it lives up to its title) and a smart cinematic voice that stands apart from most of his contemporaries. There’s even a splash of wit sprinkled throughout, reminiscent of the Coen bros. but not quite the same, giving us a debut that shows strong promise and a story that yields a powerful payoff for those patient enough to stick it through. If anything, the film is beautifully shot, offering stunning vistas and an atypical rhythm, all anchored by an ensemble of character actors who turn the film’s idiosyncrasies into something fresh.

The plot involves a young Scottish boy named Jay (Kodi Smit Mcphee), whose travelled to late 1800’s America in hopes of tracking down his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). A tragedy separated them, but now he travels the dangerous American plains forging West in hopes of a reunion. In the film’s opening moments, he’s unwittingly saved by a outlaw/bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who offers to protect and guide Jay for a price. As the pair go on their way, they come across numerous obstacles and a host of deadly encounters, with Silas transforming into a kind of father figure for Jay. But it’s Silas’ shady ulterior motives for transporting Jay which could potentially lead to deadly consequences or unexpected redemption.

What’s most notable about the film is its contemplative rhythm. Fashioning his story around a road trip punctuated by a set of encounters, Maclean builds a plot around loosely connected character exchanges, none of which end the way you’d expect, but each affecting Jay and Silas in different ways. Not afraid to get brutal at times, with striking outbursts of violence, MacLean fashions a subversive commentary on the American frontier and how little control we have over our own destinies. All of this is set amidst some truly beautiful, sometimes surreal panoramic photography and eccentric humor to offset the film’s pensive dark side. Culminating in an almost cruel climax of fates, and a ballsy shoot out in which the two main characters are nearly helpless, Maclean’s ironic take on the genre packs an emotional punch and a surprising weight.

slow_west_6Fittingly, the two standout performances come from the film’s leads, Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit Mcphee. As the lovelorn Jay, Kodi plays the role with innocence – he’s our tether into this weird world, but still a distant outsider, and we connect with him as he tries to make sense of what’s happening around him. With his character focused on a singular goal, Mcphee brings an understated nuance to the somewhat thin role that makes him believable and earns the film’s emotion. As the Silas, Fassbender lays on his signature charm and confidence to give his character the perfect amount of mystery while still feeling relatable. He has a deadpan wit to him at times but can handle the film’s tonal shifts at the flick of a switch. Ben Mendelsohn as Payne, a bounty hunter on Silas’ trail injects a wild card nature to the film while Caren Pistorius as Ross, Jay’s love interest holds down the film’s shocking climax with maturity and grace.

The joy of Maclean’s promising debut, is that it’s never what you think it is. Too many westerns (or films for that matter) are merely a playlist of influences, and while Maclean’s are obvious, he takes them in new directions and has something to say with them. The film meanders just a tad in the mid section, but its melancholy themes come together when it matters, resulting in one of the more memorable efforts of late. Slow West is an intimate coming of age film about how life is meaningless without death.

SG