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Slow West

September 28, 2015

Slow West (2015)
Director: John Maclean
Actors: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn

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Synopsis: Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a young Scotsman, foolhardily on the search for his missing sweetheart from back home who fled to the US. Jay meets and is ‘mentored’ by murky frontiersman, Silas (Michael Fassbender), as he journeys to find his girl…

Review: As with nearly all contemporary, cerebral cinematic dalliances with the Western genre, the treatment is inherently revisionist, and it’s certainly the case with Kiwi, John Maclean, and this, his debut feature Slow West – which, in tone and painterly interest in the trappings of the genre, bears some similarity to fellow Antipodean, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

In some ways, it’s a comprehensible tactic, because the blank canvas of having to ‘create’ a Western universe afresh but from the basis of its iconic and recognisable motifs offers an ambitious filmmaker free reign to demonstrate their technique and command of cinematography. Slow West is certainly pictorally arresting – taking great interest in the epic skies above the bounteous, ever-changing Western landscape, as well as finding great mileage in documenting the strange paraphernalia of the era (I particularly appreciated the effort in making Jay and Silas’ trip to a provision store in an isolated outpost seem as realistic and visceral as possible).

As in all Westerns, the film does have its usual ‘odd couple’ hook – based round a callow youngster and a grizzled old frontiersman, but this is one of Slow West’s best handled elements. First, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender, both physically and in the way they inhabit their roles, dovetail excellently – and the twist about the essential futility (at least on the Scots girl’s behalf) of Jay’s romantic mission to see her again, has a genuinely touching and poignant climax. Perhaps the montage at the end documenting all the bodies that have piled up through the film’s running time, is a slightly unearned conceit that betrays the filmmakers’ intent to appear clever and tack on a belated moral tinge to proceedings, but that aside, this is an enjoyable, proficiently-made calling card for Maclean. (September 2015)

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