Title: Slow West
Director: John Maclean
Major Players: Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Out Of Five: Four
Last week we had a western with a mysterious stranger appearing out of nowhere. This week we have a western with a mysterious …….. OK, you get the picture. But that’s really the only similarity between the Argentinian The Burning and the latest of this year’s crop of westerns, Slow West.
The mysterious stranger in question is one Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), but the story essentially belongs to teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s travelled all by himself from the Scottish Highlands to Colorado in the late 19th century. He’s trying to track down the love of his life and not making an especially good fist of looking after himself – until he encounters Silas, who becomes his unpaid guide and bodyguard. But there’s somebody on their tail and Jay can’t figure out why.
While the film starts out as something of a picaresque tale, it soon takes on an epic scale and very much a two hander between Jay and Silas. The older man’s story slowly unfurls, whereas we’ve known a lot about Jay from the start and some more is filled in later on. Not that Jay trusts Silas initially: he escapes from him, running into Scandinavian Werner (Andrew Robertt) who’s studying the decline of the native Americans. He might seem friendly, but proves to be less trustworthy than Silas – who tracks them both down and gets Jay back on track.
The man and boy are chalk and cheese, yet they’re two sides of the same coin. Jay has a positive view of the world, seeing the new America as a land of opportunity and preferring to think the best of people. Yet he turns out to be remarkably resourceful, which earns him a reluctant respect from his guide. But he’s still young and has a lot to learn. Silas, on the other hand, is all about self-preservation, and has a cynical attitude to life and his fellow men. After all, everybody has their price.
Superficially, the film appears gentle, almost soft, but lurking just underneath the surface is the prospect of violence, betrayal and death – and it never goes away. The shoot-out, which involves a massive cornfield disguising a band of gunmen, perfectly illustrates this. It looks beautiful, but what lies beneath most certainly isn’t. Yet that apparent softness is what draws the audience in to what is an unconventional western and something of a coming of age story at the same time. It’s never anything short of fascinating.
Slow West is the first feature film from Scot John Maclean, who also wrote the screenplay. Until now, he’s concentrated on making shorts and he makes the transition to full length feature with ease. And he’s eschewed the traditional locations for filming a western – New Mexico is the current favourite – by choosing New Zealand instead. Not that you’d know. With its vast expanses and snow-capped mountains, it doubles extremely well for the Colorado landscape and is a gift for cinematographer, Robbie Ryan (Catch Me Daddy).
With titles like The Homesman and The Salvation having gone before it this year, the film inevitably raises the question about the return of the genre. It has a long way to go if it’s going to get anywhere near its heyday, but this is certainly a resurgence. Quentin Tarantino returns to the West in November with the much anticipated The Hateful Eight, the troubled Jane Got A Gone, with Natalie Portman as the eponymous heroine, is released in September and there’s squillions of others in development – although how many of them will make it into cinemas is another matter. I, for one, am glad to see them back and would love more like Slow West. Apart from one thing.
I just don’t get the title. There’s no relevance to the story, any of its characters or anything. It’s not even a pun – slowest, as it were – because this isn’t an especially slow film either: in fact, it moves along more quickly than you might think, given its superficially gentle tone. And it barely makes 90 minutes. Answers on a postcard please …..
Slow West is released in cinemas on Friday, 26 June, and is featured in this week’s edition of Talking Pictures, when Michael Fassbender will be the subject of The Big Interview.