Slow West

Director: John Maclean (2015)

A lovestruck Scot hits the trail way out west in this confident and compelling western.

It rustles up great performances, pitiless action, majestic scenery, bone dry humour and a melancholy soundtrack.

Cast from the mould of Don Quixote, 16 year old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a naive and romantic doe-eyed Bambi of an un-rough youth.

He dreams of building railway to the moon and is given to gnomic utterances such as ‘love is universal, like death’ – though he has no real understanding of either.

Riding a horse weighed down with the gentlemanly essentials of a teapot and guide book, he has abandoned his privileged Sottish home to find his love Rose (Caren Pistorius) in the wild west of Colorado.

She left Scotland after an accident and now lives in rural isolation. We see their romance in flashbacks.

Through shoot-outs, robberies and flash-floods he encounters Native Americans, musicians, writers, orphans, soldiers and outlaws.

Unprepared for the violent and treacherous road, he employs a taciturn, cigar chomping sharp-shooter called Silas (Michael Fassbender) as a guide. He has more knowledge of Rose than he lets on.

Even next to the experienced and charismatic Fassbender, Smit McPhee sits tall in his acting saddle and never in the shade.

The chemistry between these travellers reveal facets of their character, altering our perception of them.

Fassbender gives a thrillingly controlled performance, hinting at nerves and a conscience hiding behind the facade of an ice-cold killer.

The film is so well constructed his voice over seems redundant – perhaps it was a commercial decision made by the producers.

With it’s surrogate family-building subplot there are echoes of Eastwood’s directorial masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

Not content with riffing on one classic, Slow West also utilises the three pronged dynamic of Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).

While Silas has strong echoes of Clint Eastwood‘s The Man With No Name, a dog-collared bounty hunter called Angus The Clergyman (Tony Croft) draws on Lee Van Cleef’s introduction as The Bad where he is similarly attired.

Ben Mendelsohn completes a trio of competing mercenaries as an outlaw called Payne. He’s a swaggering presence in a bearskin coat, reminiscent Butler (Hugh Millais) in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

Though the scale of Slow West is smaller than those films, it hits it’s ambitious targets with a Silas-like accuracy.

This a wonderfully composed movie; cinematographer Robbie Ryan only moves his camera if it serves his purpose. He previously shot Fassbender on Andrea Arnold’s gritty Brit drama Fish Tank (2009).

Musical supervisor Lucy Bright has the London Contemporary Orchestra provide a mournful string accompaniment to Ryan’s strong eye.

This is the second excellent western of the year after Kristian Levring’s The Salvation, suggesting the genre is a long way from Boot-hill. That was filmed in South Africa, Slow West was shot in New Zealand.

Despite disparate location work, both offer a fresh and defiantly European perspective on the ultimate American genre. They are intelligent, action-orientated and intense additions to the canon.

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