A confident and measured trip into the dark heart of the American west.
The western produced some of cinema’s earliest gems, and the evolution of the genre has weathered decades of change. In recent years, there’s been a postmodernist approach to the familiar setup, most notably in the literary works of Cormac McCarthy. There’s been revisionist takes in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), glorifications of its violence in Django Unchained (2012) or even geographic shifts to Australia in The Proposition (2005). Yet at the core of most stories is the notion of a few individuals against a rugged landscape, either hell bent on revenge or resolutely moving towards a predetermined fate. SLOW WEST, the debut feature from The Beta Band’s John Maclean, is firmly in the latter camp.
At the end of the 19th century, sixteen year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way across country to reunite with Rose (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves. Surrounded by the dangers of the frontier, he encounters the traveller Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to protect the boy on his journey west.
As a western, SLOW WEST has more than a little of Cormac McCarthy about it, infused not only with Blood Meridian‘s fatalism, but the suddenness of his violence. It is essentially a road movie one that is comparable to the surrealism of Dead Man (1995) and the same sense of manifest destiny about it without the heavy spiritualism. It’s a steady pace as the pair head across the country, punctuated by moments of violence and dreamlike storytelling. The film opens with death, although much of the film follows the conversations between Jay and Silas. When they do encounter someone else along the way (including Ben Mendelsohn wrapped in furs and dripping with danger), it either ends in a shooting or a in the case of Jay drunkenly stumbling into the wrong camp, an ethereal aside that would not have been out of place in Jim Jarmusch’s film.
For Maclean’s first film, it is a confident and assured vision. Coupled with Robbie Ryan’s beautiful cinematography, Maclean transforms the wilderness of New Zealand and Scotland into a compellingly different western frontier. Having worked with Fassbender before on several shorts, Maclean plays to his strengths, allowing Fassbender to reveal pieces of his character throughout the film. It makes for an interesting contrast with Smit-McPhee’s open book approach, and trusts the audiences to know where their allegiances will ultimately land.
A few years back, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff took us on a slow and stunning journey across the prairie. Despite the title, SLOW WEST is not quite as contemplative in its pace, but it is a steady and deliberate approach. Maclean has taken what would have otherwise been a straight bounty hunt and given it room to breathe, leaving nary an inch of fat on the slender 84 minutes it takes to get to its inevitable conclusion. It’s a welcome addition to a genre that never ceases to uncover new ways of telling a story.
SLOW WEST is released in Australia on 4 June 2015. It is also screening at the Sydney Film Festival 2015. It will be available to purchase on DVD, Blu-ray and digital from 29 July 2015 in Australia.