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
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.