John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is prairie poetry. It might be set in the Wild West, where it’s always high noon and desperados with big irons will drop a person cold between swigs of firewater, but in this conceptually smart and quirky take on the western, it’s love and romance that can prove to be as deadly as a six-shooter. And those unfortunate souls under its impassioned spell are drawn to drastic measures: following a girl across the sea to North Amorica (to use a Joycean pun). Something very lyrical is at play in Slow West. There are times when its story resembles a ye olde folk ballad, sung down the ages as a timely warning against the perils of thinking purely with the heart.
And at a swift eighty-four minutes, Maclean bucks the current trend for epic stories with picaresque narratives. Slow West is very much a picaresque affair, but it’s cut out the excess baggage that other directors often fetishise and obsess over. Set in Colorado Territory (though shot in New Zealand), lovestruck aristocrat, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), heeding what he believes is love’s magnificent call, seeks out his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius), who emigrated with her father from Scotland to the States. Talk about grand gestures of devotion! If the Scottish-set scenes take place on craggy moors and ragged coastlines under charcoal-grey skies, Colorado is all gorgeous, sepia-tinged mountain vistas and densely wooded valleys. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography gives off a sun-dappled haziness akin to a map pointing to buried treasure; one that has turned mucky yellow due to being pawed endlessly by tobacco-stained fingertips.
The smoky colour palette is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), in places. As wee Jay makes his way yonder over unforgiving lands, he meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who knows more about the lad’s situation than he lets on. As a product of aristocratic society raised on gentlemanly conduct, Jay is far too trusting of his new found amigo and tension is derived from a certain amount of insider knowledge we have on Silas. In a beautifully pitched hints of fatalism, Jay’s old-school ideals – gallantry and a man’s honour – contrast greatly with the brutal shoot-first-ask-questions-later world of frontier living. Slow West is an excellent debut feature from Maclean and Fassbender is on form as a gunslinger caught between the demands of his job and feelings of genuine pity for the loved-up boy under his temporary care.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn