It’s an interesting time for Westerns. In the big picture, the genre is essentially dead. Yet, on a small scale it’s incredibly vibrant. The only time that Westerns get made these days are essentially as auteur pieces where unique filmmakers toy around with the old genre tropes and reshape them into something fresh. We’ve seen the likes of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino take their swings at the genre in recent years, and now Beta Band member John MacLean steps in with his addition. MacLean might be a first-time director, but his oddball spin on the Western shows an intriguing new voice about to pop.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (excellent in ‘Let Me In’ and soon to be Nightcrawler in the next ‘X-Men’ flick) stars as Jay Cavendish, a quiet young Scottish man traveling the American West in search of his long lost love from the motherland (Caren Pistorius). After stumbling along alone, the boy of a man finds Irish cowboy Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) and convinces him to help him find his gal for a fee. Silas agrees as pretty much the only man in the whole wide West unaware of the large bounty on the girl’s head.
From there, things get charmingly episodic as the duo encounter a variety of the eccentrics and lost souls filling up the land. A bounty hunter (Ben Mendelsohn) appears along with a family of followers, yet even he seems oddly likable. Shot in an almost dreamy, floating style, the world feels too bright and eccentric to be real, even if the characters are too rich and grounded to be dismissed as quirks in the landscape. It’s a strange and heightened little world, made even easier to question by the flashbacks which reveal that the love Cavendish seeks might not be what it seems.
Writer/director John MacLean is clearly a fan of Westerns, both in how he conforms to and denies expectations. All the right iconography and costumes are here, and a constant threat of violence hangs over the film with sudden bursts that fulfill that promise. It’s not a particularly violent movie, but feels like one because the deaths and the losses seem real. The world is one of outcasts, outlaws and all other desperate souls searching barren landscapes and flailing for survival.
Refreshingly, the characters are all immigrants of various sorts or Native Americans, the type of people who actually would seek refuge in the West (you know, as opposed to movie stars who apparently enjoy space). It’s evocative and rich, hinged by Fassbender’s charming rouge take on the stoic Western hero and Smit-McPhee’s delightfully unheroic protagonist. As familiar as the world feels, the lens we see it through is cracked. The film was shot in New Zealand out of budget and scheduling concerns, and that’s accidentally perfect since all the locations feel both exactly right and slightly out of place at once.
That’s true of tone and themes of the film as it is the visuals or characters. MacLean keeps viewers off balance throughout the episodic narrative. At times, the people and places seem harsh and tragic, while other times things feel almost cartoonishly goofy. (Sometimes that happens simultaneously, like a hysterically literal sight gag near the end of the film.) Thankfully, the movie never feels rocky or inconsistent. MacLean is always carefully in control, playing his audience and toying with their expectations. Morality is never black-and-white (a welcome change for a genre that used to make that abundantly clear with hat color), and by the end viewers won’t necessarily want the story to conclude in the same way they had initially hoped.
For a debut feature, ‘Slow West’ is remarkably accomplished and suggests a bright future for its maker. MacLean was wise enough to surround himself with the finest possible talent and clearly learned a great deal from every member of the cast and crew. One movie into his career, this man is a director to follow. ‘Slow West’ only feels like a wisp of a movie during its breezy 84 minute running time. It will stick around longer than that.