cdn.indiewireIt has become popular among cinemagoers these days to regard Westerns as not only outdated but also rather distasteful. Ever since the early days of Hollywood the genre has been a stomping ground for harder-than-oak heroes, venomous, inexorable villains and lost ladies of the frontier. They are, for all purposes, fairy tales whose politics are always disturbingly one-sided and who have a penchant for the starry-eyed traveler just trying to stay alive in the ruthless environs of a New World.

What makes John Maclean’s debut feature SLOW WEST such an invigorating film is how it is able to combine a sort of latter-day magical realism with the dust and blood of the Wild West. As much as it is a deconstruction of the Western, with its reflective wit and absurdist violence, there remains an unmistakable air of romance throughout.

Set in Colorado (though shot in New Zealand) just after the Civil War, the story follows a delicate young Scotsman named Jay (played with unearthly innocence by Kodi Smit-McPhee) in search of his bonnie lass Rose (an impressive Caren Pistorius). Having fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann) after a tragic accident, her cabin on the Plains serves as a smart substitute for the Princess’s castle.

Jay allies himself with the taciturn bounty hunter Silas (the ever marvelous Michael Fassbender) who agrees to escort his new companion through the throes of this undiscovered country. They remain on the run from another less scrupulous frontiersman Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) until the fated gunfight at the end where all three narrative strains come together in a barrage of bullets.

As a film, SLOW WEST lies somewhere between the work of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Altman. If its 91-minute running time is any indication, this is not a sweeping epic nor is it meant to be. Rather what we have is a fresh slice of American historical fiction told from the perspective of a European writer and director. What has been missing from the Western as of late is that sense of otherness, of a land unseen and untamed. Here we find that sense of wonder and abandonment revived with candor. Whereas recent outings such as THE HOMESMAN (dir. Tommy Lee Jones) and TRUE GRIT (dir. by Ethan and Joel Coen) strive for ultra-naturalism, THE LONE RANGER (dir. by Gore Verbinski) drives the other way with a madcap quality reminiscent of Buster Keaton. SLOW WEST is able to combine the mythic and the real resulting in a flourish of fatalistic filmmaking that will no doubt garner admirers for years to come.

This is certainly a movie to be cherished and one can only hope that Mr. Maclean’s career continues with the same sort of ingenuity so rare in genre pieces nowadays.

 

RATING: 4.5/5