Slow West, Western, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 Chiles
The landscape of irony is treacherous ground. Slow West, the arch new Western from writer-director John Maclean (formerly of the Scottish music group Beta Band) and producer-star Michael Fassbender treads this landscape with the swagger of a confident tenderfoot. Some of it comes off nicely. A little of it makes sense. Some of it trips over its spurs and falls flat on its face.
It feels, and this is not altogether a bad thing, like a Western imagined by a kid dreaming in his bed half a world away, with Hopalong Cassidy comics stashed under his pillow and Sergio Leone posters pinned to his wall. Coming as it does from a Scottish director and a German-Irish star, and filmed on location in New Zealand, this is understandable and even a bit noble. It’s a Western about Westerns, and it wears this approach like a badge of honor, reveling in clichés of the genre like a boy dressed in a cowboy outfit from the F.A.O. Schwarz catalog and practicing his fast draw in front of a mirror, snarling, “Eat lead, you varmint!”
Fassbender plays Silas Selleck, a grizzled outlaw who takes under his wing a downy-cheeked boy named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They meet tough-cute when Silas more or less rescues Jay from being gunned down by a rogue Army officer in the woods. A little background: Jay is a Scottish laddie on a quixotic quest to find his lost Scottish lassie, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled the bonnie braes of the old country for the American West with her father after he accidentally killed a member of Jay’s aristocratic Cavendish clan. All this comes out in flashback.
What comes out in voice-over is that Rose and her father have a price on their heads and that Silas is a bounty hunter determined to collect it. This is known to us and to Silas, but not to Jay, who reluctantly accepts the brutish Westerner as his escort and protector through the wilds of Colorado.
Every scene feels like one that has played out in the fertile brain of someone who has always wanted to make a Western. This can be fun, especially when handed over to the lush camerawork of Robbie Ryan, who shoots it all in candy-colored hues and gives us a Wild West that is sometimes stereotyped and sometimes oddly displaced.
Fassbender is laconically appealing in full Clint Eastwood Man-With-No-Name mode (even though he has a name). He chomps on a cigar and barely winces when shot. Smit-McPhee is a romantic doofus, but he earns his spurs: Nobody who shoots a woman in the back will ever be wholly innocent again.
The dialogue is full of lines about “drifting west” and other such classics gleaned from the pages of Zane Grey and the vaults of Westerns past. There are plenty of visual homages to classics of the genre, and there’s a climactic shootout scene with gunmen creeping about and popping up out of tall grass that has a whiff of a scene in Ted Flicker’s great satire The President’s Analyst.
What are these Scots doing in the Wild West? Who put the price on the heads of Rose and her daddy, and how has it found its way to wanted posters in Colorado? These and many other questions will probably go unanswered — or perhaps suddenly make inspired sense as you lie in your bed drifting off to sleep and staring at the spaghetti Western posters on your wall.
Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee