Despite its wane in popularity in recent years, the Western remains a genre which can bring out the absolute best in filmmakers. From the Coens with True Grit and No Country For Old Men to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, by way of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, the last decade has brought a spate of utter masterpieces set in America’s lawless west. The debut feature from The Beta Band’s John Maclean, Slow West, continues this proud tradition with a wonderfully weird, funny, and tragic tale of immigrants and lost love, one of the highlights of 2015 so far.
We follow young Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he travels across ‘the baking heart of America’ to find the girl he loves, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). She’s fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann) after an accident turns them into fugitives. Jay knows plenty about the stars but very little about survival, so it’s a profoundly lucky stroke for him when he runs into Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). Silas wants to help Jay, for a price of $100, but his motivations are far from clear. There’s a hefty bounty on the heads of the Ross family, and Silas doesn’t appear to be one to shy away from some loot.
Fassbender, one of the most exciting actors working today, is on top form here, unflinchingly cool and charismatic, but, crucially, not entirely unflappable. Despite most of his reactions to the events transpiring around him being ones of weariness, there are moments when the façade breaks and he reveals himself to be deeply human. Maclean and Fassbender bring these moments in subtly, never using anything other than facial tics and body language, but it does a great job of grounding a character who otherwise it would be hard to have sympathy for. Smit-McPhee was also a great piece of casting, with his slightly alien, very boyish, features perfectly fitting the naïve stranger in a strange land that is Jay.
Rounding out a trio of great performances is Ben Mendelsohn as bounty hunter Payne. Almost clownish, wearing a garishly huge fur coat and drinking absinth instead of the staple western whisky, Mendelsohn brings his unique brand of queasy unease to every encounter with Payne and no second in which he is on screen is comfortable. He rounds out Slow West’s very real and effective sense of threat. Death is always just around the corner, from guns to arrows to having a tree fall on you, and it’s highly unlikely to be glorious.
Yet, Slow West is far from a bleak mediation on the fleetingness of life. Even in its most violent moments, Maclean wrings out proper laughs with a huge variety of sight gags, some clever, some on the nose, all very funny. There are also some refreshingly bizarre interludes, from an early meeting with Congolese singers that prompts a discussion about love and death (in French), to a hilarious sequence in which Jay and Silas get blind drunk. The relationship between these two leads, even at the film’s slight, 84 minute, runtime, evolves naturally and satisfyingly. Silas is put into a protective and fatherly role (he even teaches Jay how to shave), but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn from the boy and grow to, ever so slightly, respect him.
It’s also an incredibly good-looking film. Filmed in New Zealand, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is stunningly beautiful, with wide shots, an often static camera with a very deep focus and bright, gorgeous colours. Every frame is a treat to watch, creating a sense of a heightened reality rather than slavishly sticking to authenticity. This clarity, combined with Maclean’s highly accomplished direction and staging, makes the shootouts, a vital ingredient in most westerns, memorable and impactful.
Directed by a Scot, and with the five main roles going to two Scots, two Australians, and an Irishman, Slow West is truly an outsider’s look at America and its recent, yet already mythic, past. However, with its short runtime, amusing and embarrassing encounters, and cast made up of a wide variety of nationalities, it almost feels like the most honest look yet at what life in the Old West was like for the vast majority of people there. It’s very rare to see a debut feature of this quality, confidence, and perfectly balanced tone. Its poetic oddness may put some off, but allow yourself to be swept up in its world and it’s one of the best films of the year, and heralds the arrival of a fantastic new British filmmaking talent.