Slow West is the debut full-length feature from musician turned writer-director John McLean. Previously a member of seminal Scottish folk-weirdoes The Beta Band, his musical background and taste for eccentricity is clear to see in this, a twisted, unconventional subversion of a traditional Western.
The film follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender) as they journey across the old American West to find Jay’s lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Silas is the ‘lonesome drifter’ archetype, and we soon discover his reasons for helping the hapless Jay. There’s a bounty on Rose’s head, and Silas hopes that Jay will lead him right to her. Michael Fassbender is reliably excellent in the role, keeping the character alive and interesting throughout.
A selection of off-kilter vignettes pepper the film, including a dismal failure of a heist in a general store, an absinthe-fuelled campfire dirge on a banjo, and oddest of all, a group of Congolese musicians singing a love song out on the high plains. In stilted French, Jay muses that love, like death, is universal, before riding on. A vein of dark humour runs through it too – a particular sight gag involving ‘salt in the wound’ had me laughing out loud.
But even with these odd scenes, the film is sparse and clipped, as the vast expanses of the old West plains humble the narrative. There is plenty of violence scattered throughout, and death is portrayed as a constant, brutal possibility, but it’s muted and unglamorous. Combined with the minimalist dialogue and frontier-philosophy, it’s more reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel than anything else. Even the runtime of the film, at a little over 80 minutes reflects this.
It is beautifully shot, the landscape of New Zealand standing in for Colorado. But the cinematography doesn’t focus too much on the landscape and many of the best shots are of the characters – the final climactic shoot-out in particular, is a masterpiece of beautifully framed and executed action.
Slow West blends somber meditations on love, violence and death, with slapstick comedy and beautiful cinematography. This, as well as excellent performances all around, makes it a must-watch film.
Slow West is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 2nd November.