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.