Slow West is a small film, but writer/director John Maclean fills it with personality and beautiful photography. Characters never spout off their life story, or make grand proclamations about their desires, but everyone you encounter feels so real and lived in; getting to know exactly who they are through their actions. Maclean’s story follows Jay, a noble Scottish man (boy) who is heading across the great West of these United States in search of his great lost love who had to flee their native country with her father. A rogue criminal, Silas, intercepts him along his path and offers him protection from the wilderness and outlaws that will surely eat him alive.
That is all the setup you really need, at 84 minutes the film’s surprises are actually quite plentiful as Jay and Silas encounter a wealth of different faces and dangers along the way. I mentioned the vignette like nature of the film above, as Maclean uses Jay’s end goal as the motivator for them to keep moving west and dots the film with countless great moments that could all almost stand on their own as a little short film. Maclean does a fine job of making all of these somewhat disparate elements come together by the end, coalescing the film wonderfully right before the final scene.
That final scene is great, the shootout we know is coming, and one beat, accompanied by the film’s final (but projected in flashback) reveal really puts a whole new spin on Jay and his intentions. The film’s sense of humor is also quite surprising, but certainly welcome. There are so many good visual gags and the apathetic reactions to the awful reality of the west leaves you with little else to do but laugh. One particular bit with a downed tree might be the funniest thing I see all year.
Michael Fassbender plays Silas, and this is another great and subtle comedic turn, by the often very serious actor, who was also hilarious in Frank last year. Kodi Smit-McPhee is a strong lead without us ever forgetting the weaknesses of his character. He carries the right amount of earnestness and we can totally buy into his mindset that is revealed by the end. Ben Mendelsohn is great, but isn’t he always, though I do wish we got maybe one more scene with him; call me greedy. Caren Pistorius is also very effective as Rose, Jay’s supposed lady, selling the fear for your life mentality of the final shoot out while, holding her own quite handedly all the same.
John Maclean has a winner with Slow West, one of the more impressive feature debuts I’ve seen in some time. His script is sharp, his eye is keen and the music works perfectly with the material. Fassbender and Mendelsohn are great as always, but fans of the genre should not hesitate in the slightest to check this out. We don’t get a lot of westerns nowadays, but thankfully they have all been of very high quality as of late, Slow West is no exception.