John Maclean, formerly a member of the Scottish group The Beta Band, begins his debut feature with a striking image that swiftly establishes the tone of this surreal, inventive western. Young Scot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) points his bullet-less gun at the night sky, fires three shots, and in doing so lights up three of the stars that form the constellation Orion. That’s his guide as he heads west across America, searching for his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius), but the fantastical nature of the scene also hints at Jay’s state of mind: wide-eyed and fanciful, it seems, and thus by implication unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead.
And danger is everywhere in Slow West, Colorado-set but filmed in New Zealand: camouflaged Native American horse rustlers fire arrows while blending into the trees, for example, and there are many more thieves and bandits to contend with besides, including several who seek the substantial dead-or-alive bounty on Rose and her father (Rory McCann, an actor who I am desperate to see more of) which – like Jay – has followed the pair across the Atlantic. At one point Jay meets Werner (Andrew Robertt), a genial type who shares his campfire and explains he is there to document Native American culture before it disappears, having done similar work in Australia beforehand. He’s probably one of the most sympathetic people Jay meets on his journey, but he still steals the sleeping boy’s horse and leaves him with nothing but a glib note and an uncooked egg. The message is clear: it’s a tough place to survive, life is cheap and if you place your trust in anyone then, frankly, you get what you deserve.
Fortunately for Jay help is at hand in the shape of Michael Fassbender’s worldly outlaw Silas, a former member of a gang led by the flamboyant Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, adding to his repertoire of menacing villains). Silas and Payne are both after the reward mentioned above, and the two men independently realise that the unsuspecting, naive Jay is their best chance of pocketing the money. So Silas and Jay travel across the state together, chancing upon strange sights (Congolese men sitting in a plain playing music), violent incidents (a botched robbery of a general store is one of the more tense and affecting scenes) and surreal, often humorous events (Maclean’s literal rubbing of salt into wounds near the end nearly made me spontaneously applaud, while the sight of various outlaws taking turns to pop-up from a cornfield during a shootout weirdly brings to mind the whack-a-mole amusement arcade game).
It’s a bleak world, but the story gradually offers slivers of hope, most notably in the way that the relationship between Silas and Jay develops through mutual admiration. In its depiction of a young innocent growing wiser after partnering-up with an older, rougher man, Slow West obviously brings to mind westerns like John Ford’s The Searchers and both versions of True Grit, though there are hints of many more here, from Rio Bravo to McCabe & Mrs Miller. Like True Grit the younger character begins to show signs of a necessary toughness, and so we see Jay kill long before the inevitable gunfight that occurs when various parties meet, while the older man softens and eventually learns from the youngster. There is a mutual benefit here, even though Silas is unaware of it at first.
That said, Maclean goes to great lengths to ensure his movie retains a troubled edge, and the film’s ending successfully sums up the fragile balance in the old west between domestic happiness – i.e. a burgeoning civilisation of settlers – and the desperation that regularly leads to brutality. In a bravura move, just before a final, upbeat flash-forward, the director revisits all of the dead bodies that have stacked up during the short, 84-minute running time, emphasising the price paid for happiness. This strangely-moving bleakness, coupled with the sporadic moments of humour, ensures that Slow West feels like the creation of someone with a fresh, unique perspective on the American west, and the director certainly makes plenty of effort to sidestep certain conventional plot points that viewers may expect. The overall framework of the story is a familiar journey from A to B, but the details are highlighted in a way that is often thrilling and unpredictable, and the brevity feels welcome.
Shot in 1:66:1 in order to emphasise the characters rather than the landscape (though DP Robbie Ryan does a fine job of showing off the magnificence of New Zealand’s South Island nonetheless), Slow West is a welcome addition to the pantheon of modern westerns, its writer-director entertaining with wit and weirdness but also creating a setting that feels satisfyingly realistic, not least because of its emphasis on immigrants and sparseness. The performances are good and I can only see reason to encourage the director’s creative flourishes, of which there are many. A fine debut.
Directed by: John Maclean.
Written by: John Maclean.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann.
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan.
Editing: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory.
Music: Jed Kurzel.
Running Time: 84 minutes.