SLOW WEST

Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Maclean
Stars: Michael Fassbendr, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Kalanji Queypo.

A quirky and atmospheric take on the traditional western, Slow West is a British/Australian co-production that was shot entirely in New Zealand.
Jay Cavendish (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young Australian actor who is amassing some impressive credits such as the bleak, post-apocalyptic drama The Road, etc) is a naive and love lorn teenage aristocrat from Scotland who has come to Colorado to find the lost love of his life. Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father fled to America following an incident in Scotland, but Jay is determined to find her. He finds an escort in the form of the laconic Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who promises protection for a price. But Silas is a bounty hunter who has his own agenda. Rose and her father have a price on their heads, and Silas is hoping that Jay will lead him to them.
The pair face a number of dangers along their journey, including indians, a trio of Congolese musicians, a strange anthropologist, and the villainous Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his posse of cut throat gunslingers. Life is cheap in the wild west, and Jay learns some brutal lessons about trust and love and human nature along the way.
Slow West is the debut feature from John Maclean, a Scottish musician turned filmmaker, who has put a fresh spin on the usual cliches of the genre. He strips the plot back to the bare essentials, giving the material a more melancholy tone. He handles the material with confidence. The violence, when it comes during a climactic gunfight, is brutal, bloody and realistic, akin to the gun battle in the recent Danish western The Salvation. In mood, the film itself is also reminiscent of some of the revisionist westerns from the great Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, etc), albeit populated with some eccentric and quirky characters, surreal touches of Coen brothers like black humour, and a coming of age tale about unrequited love.
The prickly odd couple relationship between the inexperienced Jay and the cynical, world weary Silas drives the movie, creating much of the dramatic tension and offbeat comedy. As the taciturn Silas Fassbender seems to be channeling Eastwood at his grumpy, cigar chomping best. Maclean directed Fassbender in his two short films, so the two obviously have developed a wonderful rapport and working relationship. Smit-McPhee continues to impress with his wonderful and sensitive performance as the wide-eyed teen adventurer clearly out of his depth and his comfort zone. Mendelsohn, sporting a heavy bear skin coat, is also great as the laconic and menacing Payne, a role seemingly tailor made for him.
Slow West looks stunning, thanks to the widescreen cinematography from Robbie Ryan, who captures some beautiful and poetic scenery, and gives the material a superb visual surface. Although not quite the iconic and majestic Monument Valley landscapes beloved of the John Ford westerns, the flat open plains, the mountains in the background, and the forests of New Zealand perfectly capture the wide open spaces of the Colorado badlands of the late 19th century.
★★★★

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