One of the most exciting aspects of the western as a genre is its tremendous creative scope. Like horror, it offers a lot of room for play and interpretation, to be daring in artistry and storytelling, on account of being predominantly psychological. For his debut feature, writer-director John Maclean takes full advantage of the possibilities inherent in the genre with 'Slow West', an already award-winning fable set in the dying days of the American West that somehow manages to feel classic and refreshingly original at the same time.
in 1870, a young Scottish man Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across the American continent in search of his love Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her father after an unfortunate incident. Unfamiliar with the landscape and its dangers, Jay crosses paths with Silas (Michael Fassbender), a gruff and disagreeable man who agrees to help Jay with his quest. What Jay doesn't know though is that Silas has other plans, and is using Jay for his own ends.
The most striking thing about 'Slow West' from the moment it begins is how rich the visuals are. We're used to seeing desaturated images of desolate landscapes, but what Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan give us is far more lush, full of life and colour and textures you wouldn't immediately associate with the American West. The film was shot in New Zealand which may account for some of that, but the landscape never looks anything other than convincing. 'Slow West' is a visually sumptuous film, each shot carefully and beautifully composed. Because the tale at the centre of the film is more akin to a fable, the film has an almost magic-realism quality to it, as if what we're watching is a kind of dream. Even at its most violent, the film has a gentle touch, an almost irreverent twinkle in its eye. Maclean fills the film with moments of texture and nihilistic humour, and a collection of unusual and memorable characters. As optimistic and romantic Jay pushes on with his journey, he must navigate his way around men and obstacles akin to mythical monsters in Greek mythology, with the potentially dangerous Silas as his guide. Another wonderful aspect of 'Slow West' is how diverse the characters are in culture and gender, women fighting alongside men and cultures fighting alongside cultures. It's another texture that makes 'Slow West feel unique and fresh, and even though Maclean's sparse screenplay hits all the anticipated narrative points, they serve to support the film rather than detract.
'Slow West' is a visually sumptuous film, each shot carefully and beautifully composed.
As the central romantic figure, Kodi Smit-McPhee continues to show his remarkable range as an actor. His accent may be a tad spotty, but this take nothing away from the detail and skill in his performance. It's a tricky task to play a character as idealistic as Jay, but Smit-McPhee adds a wicked little streak into him that makes Jay feel, not only more rounded, but a worthy protagonist for the film. Michael Fassbender is as wonderful as you would expect as Silas, somehow managing to be both disagreeable and charismatic at the same time. This is one of those terrific performances from him that is full of danger, like an animal waiting to attack. Aren Pistorius is also great as Rose, who comes into her own in the final act, and Ben Mendelsohn finally offers a variation on his usual performances with the wonderfully theatrical Payne, a fellow outlaw tracking Jay and Silas. This is an example of Mendelsohn at his best as an actor.
There's something very haunting about 'Slow West', something that sticks around long after the credits have rolled. Perhaps it's the beautiful visuals or the simplicity of its storytelling or the skilled performances, but likely it's the culmination of all three. John Maclean has made one hell of an impression with his debut film, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what he does in the future. 'Slow West' is a beautiful and gentle contribution to the western genre, and one that reminds you of its tremendous possibilities.