Image: A24

Slow West

Director: John MacClean

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius

Length: 84 minutes

Country: UK/USA


Slow West might be one of the weirdest films I’ve seen all year, and that’s no bad thing. Hearing it’s a Western might inspire certain feelings of trepidation – you might wonder, how much more can Hollywood really get out of this well-ploughed genre? There’s a reason why Tommy Lee Jones is the only guy making them anymore. But, thankfully, this film shows that a story set at the dawn of civilization in America still has a lot to offer, thanks to some inventive direction from first-timer John Maclean and a charismatic performance from star Michael Fassbender.

The story begins with a boy laying on the grass, pointing out star constellations with his gun. He’s a dreamer, an optimist in a cruel world, and, through a voiceover, we find out he’s riding West to save the girl he loves. The boy is Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the soft, Irish voice we hear belongs to Silas Selleck (Fassbender), an outlaw who first announces his presence by shooting dead a man in uniform then rifling through his belongings for valuables. We’re back in the early era of the genre, where men are still travelling West, away from their savage homeland to the promise of civilisation; which, as one character puts it, translates into “dreams and toil”. Silas convinces Jay that he needs a dangerous man to accompany him on his quest, otherwise he’s likely to come a cropper at the hands of even more dangerous men, like hulking outlaw Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his gang. And so, like Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley before them, they begin their journey across the wilderness and develop an unlikely, uneasy friendship.


Image: A24

Only this wilderness is rather unlike anything we’ve seen before. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan paints his landscapes with unconventional vividness, where neon yellow is just as likely to dominate as customary browns and greens, and it all feels decidedly dreamlike – not least because Maclean populates his world with oddballs and eccentrics, with impossibilities and stylisations. The duo’s quest has them encounter a trio of black French musicians, a family of starving immigrants robbing a grocery store, and a rambling novelist in the middle of the desert with a strange penchant for garden furniture.

What’s effective about the film, though, is its ability to straddle the line between the absurd and the sincere, often flipping between the two several times during a scene.

What’s effective about the film, though, is its ability to straddle the line between the absurd and the sincere, often flipping between the two several times during a scene. These characters have all seen death in its savage reality – except Jay, whose innocence is gradually eroded throughout – and have decided that the best way to cope is through black humour and the acceptance that they might, and perhaps should, die at any time. When Jay is shot in the hand by an arrow Silas remarks “Nice catch” and brutally yanks it out of him. Similarly, the final shootout at a remote cottage alternates between tense, brutal, hilarious and tragic so many times I would have gotten whiplash if Maclean wasn’t so good at managing tone.

Much of the film’s success hinges on Michael Fassbender, who takes what could have been a thin character and gives him a rugged and poignant depth. At what point he transitions from nihilistic outlaw to responsible father figure is unclear, but Fassbender is effortlessly compelling as a closely-guarded man wrestling with his emotions. Kodi Smit-McPhee is pretty good as well, bringing an ethereal boyishness to the role, though the film is almost stolen by Ben Mendelsohn (so terrific in Animal Kingdom and recently Bloodline) sporting a natty fur coat. Slow West is far from being a classic – the dialogue clunks obnoxiously at times, and its short running time is both a blessing and a curse – but, as an entertaining take on a supposedly exhausted genre, filled with personality, it’s really quite something.



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