Film Review: ‘Slow West’

Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee wander a strikingly defamiliarized Old West in John Maclean's accomplished first feature.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo. (English, French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3205376/

A dark river of fatalism courses beneath the beautifully photographed vistas of “Slow West,” an intriguingly off-center Western that brings a bevy of European talent to bear on an American frontier story. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as a young Scotsman who’s made the journey to Colorado in search of the woman he loves, and Michael Fassbender as a wily companion who turns out to be hunting the same quarry, John Maclean’s impeccably crafted writing-directing debut at times has a distinctly Coen-esque flavor in its mix of sly intelligence, bleak humor and unsettling violence, exuding fierce confidence even when these qualities don’t always cohere in the smoothest or most emotionally impactful fashion. Winner of the grand jury prize in the international dramatic competition at Sundance, this U.K.-New Zealand co-production should travel far on the strength of its critical reception and cast names; A24’s Stateside release date has yet to be announced.

A Scottish musician turned filmmaker who previously directed Fassbender in two shorts (“Man on a Motorcycle,” “Pitch Black Heist”), Maclean at once evokes and defamiliarizes the wide open spaces of the American West, played here, in a subtly bold stroke of casting, by rugged New Zealand. Whether or not audiences realize they’ve wandered into Middle-earth rather than Monument Valley, it’s hard to watch “Slow West” without feeling a surreal, almost subliminal sense of dislocation — one ideally matched to the film’s 16-year-old protagonist, Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), who has journeyed from the Scottish Highlands to Colorado sometime during the late 1800s, in romantic pursuit of a young woman named Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Skinny, naive and woefully unprepared for the dangers ahead, Jay gets an early taste of local barbarism when he runs afoul of a union officer, who proves no less hostile to harmless European wanderers than he is to the Native Americans he shoots for sport.

Fortunately, Jay is swiftly rescued by Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a terse, skilled frontiersman who agrees to be his guide and protector. What Jay doesn’t realize is that a price has been put on Rose’s head, and Silas, a bounty hunter, is counting on his comrade to lead him straight to her front door. The backstory is gradually unfolded, if not entirely clarified, in a series of flashbacks to Jay’s life in Scotland, tracing the beginnings of his attraction to Rose and the curious circumstances that led her and her father (Rory McCann) to flee to the New World. But as soon becomes clear, Maclean is less interested in playing out this youthful love story than he is in examining the costs of manifest destiny from the jaundiced perspective of an outsider — specifically, the toll of the American legacy on those populations, native and immigrant, which found themselves displaced as a result.

And so it’s no accident that, after stumbling on a small band of French-speaking Congolese musicians, Jay and Silas have a tense and bloody confrontation with a gun-wielding Swede (Karl Willetts) who robs a general store out of desperation to feed his family. The meticulous calibration of this sequence offers an early suggestion of Maclean’s flair for staging violence (aided by terrifically sharp editing from Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory), but it’s the gut-punch aftermath of the encounter that casts a grim pall over the remainder of the story and lends “Slow West” a measure of moral heft. And there are still more unexpected meetings in store, chiefly with a gang of outlaws led by the quietly menacing Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, almost but not quite upstaged by an enormous fur overcoat), whom Silas has clearly met before.

As their journey continues, the two men begin to develop a strong if understated bond, and Smit-McPhee (somewhat recalling his early breakout performance in “The Road,” but with much more presence) projects a hopelessly good-natured innocence that plays nicely opposite his onscreen partner’s gruff, hardened cynicism. Although he utters only a handful of lines over the course of the film, Fassbender is especially good at conveying a sense of Silas’s deepening protective instincts, never more so than in a teaching-the-lad-how-to-shave scene that might have felt obligatory, but instead feels both tough and tender in its understanding of the challenges of manhood in a corner of the world as cruel and unforgiving as this one.

Belying its title with its brisk pacing and 91-minute running time, “Slow West” emerges a curious fusion of seemingly incongruous dramatic elements — coming-of-ager, romance, Western and thriller — all filtered through a slightly detached, almost deconstructive sensibility, clearly informed by hours of exposure to classic oaters. Accomplished as the filmmaking is, on a certain level the movie feels more like a meticulously constructed cinephile curio than a fully immersive adventure. Despite the natural splendor of the outdoor imagery, shot with a typically superb eye by Robbie Ryan, there’s an almost deliberate sense of artifice to the composition of the action and the blocking of bodies within the frame — a feeling enhanced by the use of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio (an early “widescreen” format that made its debut with Paramount’s initial release of “Shane” in 1953).

If that distance robs the picture of some emotional force, there’s no denying the visceral power of the finale, as “Slow West” builds to a prairie shootout so tautly edited and ferociously choreographed that you can all but feel the bullets whizzing past and often connecting with their targets, amplified by the exceptional crispness of the sound design. It’s a brutal whirlwind of violence, spiked with darkly funny flourishes, one of which is particularly gratuitous, even pranksterish, in its cruelty; clearly, Maclean is not a filmmaker overly concerned with the more delicate sensibilities in the audience. Which is not to say that he has no heart: Inviting the viewer to consider the long and lonely trail of bloodshed that led the characters to this grisly point, this wry American counterhistory concludes on an unsentimental yet not entirely unromantic note, suggesting that beyond the way of death may also lie the possibility of new beginnings.

Film Review: 'Slow West'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 24, 2015. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-New Zealand) An A24 (in U.S.)/Lionsgate (in U.K.) release of a Film4, BFI and the New Zealand Film Commission presentation, in association with Cross City Films and HanWay Films, of a DMC Film/See-Saw Films/Rachel Gardner Films production. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Rachel Gardner, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Conor McCaughan. Executive producers, Michael Fassbender, Katherine Butler, Zygi Kamasa.

Crew: Directed, written by John Maclean. Camera (color), Robbie Ryan; editors, Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory; music, Jed Kurzel; music supervisor, Lucy Bright; production designer, Kim Sinclair; art director, Ken Turner; set decorator, Amber Richards; costume designer, Kirsty Cameron; sound, Richard Flynn; sound designer, Paul Carter; re-recording mixers, Doug Cooper, Paul Carter; special effects supervisor, Steve Ingram; visual effects supervisors, Tim Capper, Rupert Davies; visual effects, Blue Bolt; stunt coordinator, Steve McQuillan; line producer, Angela Littlejohn; associate producer, Gerardine O’Flynn; assistant director, Axel Paton; casting, Tina Cleary, Miranda Rivers, Nikki Barrett, Kahleen Crawford.

With: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo. (English, French dialogue)

More Film

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: 'Us' on Track for Second-Highest Debut of 2019 With $67 Million

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is on its way to scaring up one of the biggest debuts of 2019, with an estimated $67 million from 3,741 North American locations. Should estimates hold, “Us” will be able to claim several milestones: the highest debut for an original horror movie (the biggest launch for any horror pic goes to [...]

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content