Release date: 26 June 2015
Running time: 84 min
Director: John Maclean
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann
John Maclean, formerly of cult Scottish indie musicians ‘The Beta Band’, makes his directorial debut with Slow West: an uncanny, melancholic Western which owes as much of a debt to America’s independent filmmakers of the 80s and 90s as it does to the films of Wayne and Eastwood.
Young Scottish lad Jay (Smitt-McPhee) comes from a wealthy background, and after falling in love with a local farm girl follows her to the States when her family is forced to emigrate. Making his solo journey west to find his love, he chances across outlaw Silas (Fassbender), who offers to escort him on his travels for a fee of $50. As all journeys are, it’s about the experience and not necessarily the destination; as they venture closer towards their goal, their encounters with strangers gradually reveal that there is more to this situation than it first appears.
At a brisk 84 minutes, Slow West is a slow burner, but not perhaps as much as the title would suggest. Infact it could benefit from being around 20 minutes longer; an unusual criticism in this current movie climate, but perhaps this is also to its credit. By the end titles roll you want more, to continue to spend time with Jay and Silas and observe their relationship develop. Kodi Smitt-McPhee, who also impressed with darker material alongside Viggo Mortensen in The Road a few years back, is once again understated and mature beyond his years as a naive young lad who haplessly follows his heart. Fassbender on the other hand recalls Clint as he squints and screws up his face like he’s just encountered a bad smell, cigarillo permanently hanging out the corner of his mouth and viewing everyone and everything with contempt.
Reminiscent of the films of Jim Jarmusch, especially his existential Western Dead Man, Slow West moves forward via a series of encounters with outlaws, natives and frontiersmen. It also recalls the largely forgotten (and underrated) 2006 Western Seraphim Falls, which wasn’t afraid to get a bit weird, and reveals Pierce Brosnan’s tragic past through flashbacks and his interactions with strangers. However for all its good company, there is something non-descript that’s missing from Slow West. At times it seems torn between the conventional Western and the strangeness and disconnect it grapples with, and doesn’t quite fully satisfy on either side. There are also some odd choices made visually, with the incessant use of deep focus jarring with the starkness of the cinematography. Finally, the insistence on voice-over is an insistence that must cease; it needlessly cheapens the material where it might have been made more compelling.
Muddled perhaps, but Slow West remains an engaging and at times genuinely moving peculiarity which has a clear love and understanding of the genre. Its raw depiction and hesitation towards violence is refreshing, with one sequence in particular being especially effective in its refusal to shy away from the cost. It also once again marks Kodi Smitt-McPhee as a talent to watch, and cements Fassbender as one of the most intriguing and talented actors around. Most importantly however it stands as a promising debut for Maclean, with the idiosyncratic spirit of his music being unmistakeably continued through his dedication to the eccentric and the abstract.