Director: John Maclean
Writer: John Maclean
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn
John Maclean isn’t a directorial name I’ve ever heard of before, a fact which conjures up a degree of shame with him being a fellow Scotsman and all, and his zany, intriguing, 2015 feature film debut Slow West also managed to fall under my radar. It’s a rapidly quick paced, fairly short little film that belies it’s titular name. Excellently casted, featuring a predominantly European cast and perfectly crafted by the ex-musician come filmmaker. It’s a surprisingly good western on the surface that’s about a lovesick boy, but also attempts to convey the real struggle that native Americans faced at the hands of their colonial settlers.
The film opens with the attention very much on the aforementioned lovesick chap, 16 year old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) journeying on his lonesome and heading towards a Native American settlement that looks to be under attack by union soldiers. Even without uttering a word in the first five minutes you get an immediate sense that he’s way out of his depth in the alien ‘New World’ landscape of North America (actually New Zealand, but that’s another story). Skinny, with more than a hint of naivety, he’s got a certain ballsiness and continues making his way forward despite thick smoke obscuring his vision and ash falling. When he meets a group of soldiers using a fleeing man as target practice things turn rather pear shaped, with the leader paying no heed of the youngsters protestations at being British and meaning no harm. Step forward Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an experienced outlaw with a hidden agenda to save the day.
He kills the soldier dead without a second thought and immediately advises the bewildered and rather flustered looking Jay that he’ll be in need of a guide in those parts. A role he’s only too happy to volunteer for at a price. The basic premise of the story thereafter is essentially the blooming relationship between the pair of them and their journey together in search for Rose (Caren Pistorius), the previously mentioned girl he’s infatuated with. There’s ups and downs, dark humour aplenty, no holds barred violence, an ill judged attempted escape from Jay which leaves him stranded in the middle of an expansive desert with an uncooked egg to his name and several hilarious scenes between both Jay and Silas. The best of which involves the drinking of absinthe after the arrival of one Silas’ old acquaintances Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), a dodgy figure and leader of an outlaw group closely trailing our protagonists for much of the film.
I like the way Maclean fleshed out the backstory of Jay via a series of flashbacks set in the Scottish highlands the character calls home. It allowed the viewer to be given an insight into his motivations, whilst slowly introducing us to him, Rose and her dad John (Rory McCann). and also the reasons behind their decision to leave. It also allowed for a nice change in tone from the present day action which was absolutely relentless in its ferocity and pacing. It’s a quite short film at an hour and twenty odd minutes and they really utilised each and every second of those effectively. The growing bond and relationship between Silas and Jay was very nicely handled too. Both were able to help each other out with the latter showing Silas that there was hope and reasons for optimism even in the Willd West, meanwhile Silas did his best to imbue the younger gentlemen he was growing increasingly fond of with a dose of reality.
There’s some really good performances in this film, most notably from Smit-McPhee. The character of Jay was awkward and slightly eccentric, and Kodi was perfectly cast for it, filling that role with a confidence belying his relatively young age of 19. Michael Fassbender was also outstanding as the outlaw Silas, a cynical man with a plan who starts out as a cold fish and eventually mellows as the film progresses, developing an unlikely bromance with his younger companion. Mendelsohn’s part as Payne isn’t quite as big as the other two, but he lights up the handful of scenes he features in and that majestic fur coat of his almost deserves a mention of its own. Shoutouts to Pistorius as Rose, she steals the finale with an emotionally powerful performance and the main man Rory McCann as John. He doesn’t have an enormous role, but such is my love for his character in Game of Thrones, it would be sacrilege for me not to mention him and he does do a decent job in a relative cameo role.
The film doesn’t hold back in the violence stakes with plenty of murders occurring, never shirking away from showing blood. Having said that, it’s a rated 15 film and it’s not terribly violent by any means. Still, there is some striking moments in there. One scene in particular involving a desperate mother and father in a store with their young children waiting outside was particularly profound. The ending had a unique way of sequentially panning to every single person killed in the film, which to be honest, I thought was rather cool. Which brings me onto the cinematography. It’s was stunningly shot by Robbie Ryan. There was several beautiful moments, such as that scene I mentioned in the wide, expansive desert and even the sweeping vistas of the Ross’ prairie house at the end where just a delight on the eye.
I really, really enjoyed this film. I went in with zero knowledge of its existence and was pleasantly surprised at the quality. The ensemble performances were for the most part excellent and the story whilst rather simplistic at heart was still very well implemented and there was the obvious underlying thematic elements in regards to the Native American mistreatment. I can’t really think of any glaring negatives in there and would have no problems recommending it.