Right pace, right place

You’ll find few finer vis­tas on film in re­cent years than those in John Ma­clean’s el­e­gant new western, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

SLOWWEST Di­rected by John Ma­clean. Star­ring Michael Fass­ben­der, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Men­del­sohn, Caren Pis­to­rius, Rory McCann. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 84 min No genre car­ries as much bag­gage to the screen as does the western. It’s no won­der so few com­plete the jour­ney. The con­tem­po­rary film-maker is, it seems, ex­pected to of­fer more than a mere tale of the fron­tier. He or she must also de­con­struct, con­tex­tu­alise and re­cal­i­brate a whole tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can myth­mak­ing.

With all this in mind, it is worth first clar­i­fy­ing what John Ma­clean’s per­sua­sive fea­ture de­but does not do. De­spite that mis­lead­ing ti­tle, Slow West is not an oblique ex­is­ten­tial western in the style of Jim Jar­musch’s Dead Man or Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand. There is lit­tle of the self-ab­sorbed homage we got from Django Un­chained or Once Upon a Time in the West. We do hear one ref­er­ence to a van­ish­ing era, but the film is much less taken up with el­egy than were pic­tures such as Un­for­given or The Homes­man.

What we have is an im­mi­grant tale that – though hardly told at break­neck pace – never slack­ens into lethargy. Ma­clean was a founder mem­ber of The Beta Band and that group’s taste for ec­cen­tric ac­ces­si­bil­ity is pal­pa­ble in a film that slips broad jokes in amid fre­quent, ar­bi­trary vi­o­lence. Slow West is not much like any other western. It’s not a great deal like any other film.

Ma­clean re­mem­bers that most wan­der­ers on the fron­tier did not yet sound like Amer­i­cans. Kodi SmitMcPhee, grown into a lean sprite since his ap­pear­ance in The Road, plays a se­ri­ous Scot­tish lad named Jay, who has come to search for Rose (Caren Pis­to­rius), the young woman he loves. It’s amaz­ing he has sur­vived as long as he has. Jay’s horse is weighed down by count­less use­less pos­ses­sions in­clud­ing the 19th­cen­tury equiv­a­lent of The Fron­tier for Dum­mies: Ho! For the West!

Early on he is nearly bush­whacked by a Civil War vet­eran, be­fore Si­las (Michael Fass­ben­der), the film’s wry nar­ra­tor, res­cues him and, for a con­sid­er­able fee, of­fers to ac­com­pany the green­horn across Colorado’s wild lands. Si­las knows some­thing Jay does not: there is a bounty on Rose’s head that will set the wanderer up for life. And the im­mi­grant is lead­ing him straight to the prize.

Though Slow West is not any sort of meta-western, we will ad­mit that Si­las is a fa­mil­iar type. The hard­ened cynic, baked by sun and blasted by dust, still has enough hu­man­ity to em­pathise with his hope­less charge. The two be­gin as an­tag­o­nists and end as un­com­fort­able friends. No such tem­per­ing is likely to still the hand of Si­las’s old pal Payne, played with bril­liantly ur­sine malev­o­lence by Ben Men­del­sohn, who is hard on the duo’s trail.

Not ev­ery­thing works in the pic­ture. The brief ap­pear­ance by a wan­der­ing Ger­man philoso­pher, cheek­ily named Werner (as in Herzog), of­fers an ef­fec­tive di­ver­sion, but the mu­si­cal num­ber by French­s­peak­ing Africans seems to spring from a more sur­real pic­ture.

Slow West is, how­ever, an

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fass­ben­der in Slow West

un­end­ing treat to look at. Our own Rob­bie Ryan, now in­dis­putably among the word’s finest cin­e­matog­ra­phers, draws sin­is­ter beauty from the loom­ing moun­tains and en­velop­ing forests. Coloradans will be more aware than most that we’re ac­tu­ally look­ing at New Zealand, but even they will be charmed by the el­e­gance of the im­ages. Ma­clean and Ryan are at their very best in a fi­nal shootout – one of two su­perbly han­dled con­fla­gra­tions – that dis­cov­ers a new, sur­pris­ing way of con­ceal­ing ban­dits from home­stead­ers.

At an as­ton­ish­ingly terse 84 min­utes, Slow West – win­ner of a Jury Prize at Sun­dance – never al­lows it­self much time for con­tem­pla­tion or rev­e­la­tion. Un­usu­ally for con­tem­po­rary films, it is, how­ever, just about the length that it needs to be. It will be men­tioned in PhDs for decades to come. That’s what hap­pens to west­erns these days.

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