UK Release Date: 26th June 2015
Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: John Maclean
Writer: John Maclean
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Edwin Wright, Rory McCann
Synopsis: A fragile young Scotsman travels all the way to the American west to track down the love of his life and befriends a rugged outlaw.
The western is undergoing something of a resurgence in modern cinema, whether it’s with Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent Django Unchained or the more stripped-down style of The Salvation. Debutant John Maclean is the next to step into the weighty shoes of the genre with Slow West, which is a bright, exuberant treat of a film.
Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels all the way from Scotland to America in order to reunite with Rose (Caren Pistorius) – the love of his life. A passing outlaw, Silas (Michael Fassbender), rescues Jay from bandits and offers to protect him on his journey. Along the way, they are threatened by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his group of bounty hunters.
Slow West is far from a conventional western. It’s a unique visual experiment with a deliberately uneven tone that creates an off-kilter world, rather different to the world of John Wayne. Director John Maclean certainly leaves a considerable footprint on his debut feature, but this is also a film that has rich rewards for its actors.
| "He saw things differently. To him, we were in a land of hope and good will."
In a similar way to Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation, the western genre of Slow West fits Michael Fassbender like a glove. His quiet, growling delivery oozes machismo and aggression, but contains just enough warmth and comfort to make him a believable ally for the protagonist. He is simultaneously completely trustworthy and utterly impossible to place any faith in. The dialogue is sparse, but Fassbender gives the performance real depth.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is similarly impressive as the vulnerable youngster, repeatedly compared to a “jackrabbit in a den of wolves”. His pale skin, gangly body and wide eyes create a performance that’s every bit to do with his physicality as well as his incongruously well-crafted speech. He contrasts not only with Fassbender, but with Ben Mendelsohn, who once again proves to be one of the most adept barely concealed villains in modern cinema.
Despite these strong performances, it’s John Maclean’s mastery of disparate tones that makes Slow West such an interesting piece of work. Maclean and DoP Robbie Ryan drench the West in vibrant colour in a truly unique visual palette, particularly when the deliriously exciting climactic bloodbath kicks into gear.
Alongside the giddy visual style and violence, there is a rich vein of bizarre gallows humour running through the film. It’s not that Slow West winks at the audience, but it’s aware that we are there and wants us to have a bit of a fun in amongst the drama and the violence.
| "A jackrabbit in a den of wolves – fortunate to be alive."
Wisely, Maclean never over-eggs this aspect of his story, but there are issues with pace as a result of the comic interludes and the film never quite feels sure-footed, especially as it builds its narrative in a vague, slightly slapdash fashion.
It’s certainly an uneven film, but it’s one that cannot be faulted for its style and ambition. The western is back on its feet and ready for a showdown.
Pop or Poop?
John Maclean’s feature debut is an inventive western with a devilish sense of humour. Slow West paints its arid setting in vivid colour and populates it with big, memorable characters.
Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee are great as opposite sides of the hero coin, but they are undercut a little by Maclean, who occasionally loses his narrative discipline in amongst the whirlwind of chaos and comedy.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.