The images of Slow West, the first film from former Beta Band member John Maclean, are so beautiful and arresting that they seem hand-painted. Every aspect of the film has the mark of artistry about it, from the stunning landscapes to authentic costumes and believable, honest performances. Whether you are a committed cinephile or casual viewer, it is one of the most enjoyable movie experiences of the year.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has grown roughly a mile since The Road) is a honest, well-meaning Scotsman, journeying across the vast plains of America in search of his first love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). It is a task for which he is not prepared, and he enlists the assistance of bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to both protect him and guide him towards his beloved. The pair seem well-suited, with Jay’s affable naivety offsetting his companion’s gruff weariness. But Silas has a secret; Rose is Wanted, and there is potential gain in the search for him.
Maclean is both director and writer, and in every second you appreciate his understanding of and love for his story. Comparisons with the Coen Brothers have substance; there is the same taste for gruesome injury, and a dance along the line between dramatic and ridiculous. This is best seen in the coat worn by Ben Mendelsohn’s hunter and main antagonist Payne, that is so large and obnoxious it looks as if it is consuming him whole, and that the charming Mendelsohn actually wore to the Sundance premiere.
There is, though, a delightful purity to Slow West that I haven’t always found with the Coen Brothers or other westerns. It never overplays its hand, instead relying on the allure of the imagery and our investment in the characters to maintain our attention. If anything, it leaves you wanting more. For those who find westerns intimidating or dry, I would suggest the vibrancy here as a great entry point, while there is a clear respect for the genre to captivate devotees. Tellingly, I’m yet to speak to anyone who didn’t really enjoy it.
What starts as bantering between Jay and Silas gains more and more purpose, and their chance encounters with other wanderers turn from peculiar to threatening. Jay aside, we’re never sure who to trust, and this allows for a thorough consideration of how our morality is constructed by the choices that we make. Rather like in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex the terrain is a character of itself, at times friendly and sustaining but capable of bringing the best of people to their knees. It takes a writer of great ability to give the natural world this agency; Maclean does it with confidence, but also a wide eye that draws us fully into the world.
Smit-McPhee is perfectly cast as Jay; his face carries the hopefulness of youth but also reflects the troubles he encounters. While Pistorius is the only woman in the film, her Rose is no damsel in distress; she is an independent soul who won’t be bowed by a difficult life. Fassbender is the most familiar face to audiences, but after a string of high energy characters and blockbuster roles this is a refreshing reminder of how understated he can be, with Silas rarely offering more than a grimace.
The film deservedly won the grand jury prize in the International dramatic competition at Sundance; and international it is, with Smit-McPhee and Mendelsohn hailing from Australia, Fassbender and Game of Thrones alumnus Rory McCann from the British Isles and Pistorius from South Africa. The foreignness of the cast seems to have informed their performances; everyone in the film is an outsider, lured to this land by the promise of opportunity and now scrabbling around in the dust to make that reality. Maclean is not the first to hint at the emptiness of this promise, but few have done it as engagingly on a first go.
After a thorough festival run across several continents, Slow West is released in the UK on Friday 26th June, and the visuals make it absolutely worth a cinema trip. There are still limited tickets remaining for a special screening at the Everyman in Hampstead including a Q&A with John Maclean, as part of the first annual Music Film Festival.