John Maclean, one-time DJ and sampler with The Beta Band, makes an impressive feature film directorial debut with this stylish western shot on location in New Zealand.
Confidently abiding by conventions of the genre, Slow West is a classic coming of age story, which positions a resourceful young woman at the heart of the blood-spattered action.
“Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady,” observes one grizzled character, reminding us that appearances can be deceptive in the dustbowl of 1870s Colorado.
This no place for the weak. A moment’s hesitation to pull a trigger separates the living and the dead, and no one sheds a tear when you’re gone because they are too busy ransacking your pockets.
Maclean’s lean script, which gallops to just 83 minutes, won’t leave audiences feeling saddle sore and the writer-director confidently orchestrates shoot outs that culminate in a double-digit body count.
Fresh-faced 17-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) journeys “from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find love”.
In a mosaic of flashbacks, we discover that the impressionable young man, son of a landowner (Alex Macqueen), pursued a Highland fling with peasant’s daughter Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius).
She tried in vain to douse Jay’s ardour, telling him, “You’re the little brother I never had.”
Rose and her father (Rory McCann) departed for foreign climes and now lovesick whelp Jay is on their trail, determined to woo the object of his unrequited affections.
Jay is poorly equipped to survive the brutality of the frontier west, where cigar-chewing outlaws like Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his posse roam with murderous intent.
The teenager crosses paths with a world-weary bounty hunter called Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who proposes to chaperone Jay for a fee.
The two form a tender, fragile bond as they trot through a series of misadventures.
“There’s more to life than just surviving,” philosophises Jay, as Silas shaves his almost hairless chin with a knife.
“Yeah, there’s dying,” growls the gunslinger, who neglected to tell Jay his beloved Rose and her old man are wanted dead or alive for 2,000 US dollars.
Slow West is a compelling portrait of an era, through the eyes of a jack rabbit, who has strayed into a den of wolves.
Smit-McPhee brings an appealing innocence to his stargazing dreamer, who learns harsh lessons about placing trust in strangers on the road. In stark contrast, Fassbender swaggers with ominous intent, shrouding his character in ambiguity so we are never entirely sure of his allegiances until a barnstorming final reckoning.
The actors are an odd couple, yet somehow the mismatch works, set against the majestic locations captured in all their sprawling glory by cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robert. Director: John Maclean.
Star rating: 8.5/10