John Maclean’s directorial and screenwriter feature debut Slow West certainly brings about a new lease of life to the Western genre; a fantastically solid piece of filmmaking where everything fits together so very well.
Maclean’s script is touching, funny and dark – it talks directly to the audience about falling in love, having new experiences and learning about yourself without ever falling into cliche or relying too much on generic conventions. Its pacing is quite admirable; it’s fast enough for an action fan to be into it but also has the feel of an arthouse film that luxuriates in its surroundings and takes just that little bit more time to explore the characters and their motivations. Plus the performances, especially from the central pair of Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, are subtle and delicate but grab hold of the audience from the very start and do not let go until the end. The chemistry between Fassbender and Smit-McPhee sets the screen alight – they go from father and son, to teacher and student, to wise man and dreamer and they swap roles constantly throughout; it’s as if they have known each other for years and they are just playing out their natural relationship during the course of the film.
Smit-McPhee plays Jay, a lovelorn teenager from Scotland who travels across 19th century America to find Rose (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves who seems to have left for America with her father, John (Rory McCann) for an unknown reason. Whilst travelling across the dangerous West, Jay meets Silas (Fassbender), a former bounty hunter who offers protection to Jay on his journey because despite Jay’s will and determination, he will most likely end up being killed. What Jay doesn’t realise is that a bounty is on the head of John and Rose and Silas may be a little more than invested in finding the pair as well. During the journey they meet others including somewhat trendy Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who knew Silas in another life and others who threaten the conclusion of the story.
What Slow West does so very well is break from tradition, it doesn’t meander down the same route of a Western but instead is calm and carves a very significant and unique story of its own. The juxtaposition between the moments of violence (both shoot outs in the film are extraordinary) with the dry wit and humour of the characters really is the strength of the film. Maclean builds up an incredible sense of tension throughout the film by slowly delving into the minds of the characters, which allows the audience to grow closer to them and actually care about what is going to happen next.
A gorgeous film that keeps on point and all round an extremely solid debut effort, Slow West deserves to be watched repeatedly as a fulfilling piece of drama and a cinematic treat. Maclean is a talent to watch out for.