IFFBoston 2015 Review: ‘Slow West’
Directed by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Ben Mendelsohn
Plot: A Scottish teenager is escorted across the American West by a bounty hunter.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay Cavendish, a Scottish teenager who has found himself trekking the American West all by his lonesome. He is trying to track down the love of his life, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Rose fled Scotland with her father, John (Rory McCann, yarp), after he causes a tragic accident. Now, the two are trying to live a quiet life in a brand new cabin out in the middle of nowhere, where no one knows who they are.
McPhee’s youthful appearance and gentlemanly demeanor make him a lot different from our usual Western protagonist. These movies are usually led by dirty, silent, rugged tough guys, kind of like Michael Fassebender’s character. He plays Silas Selleck, a bounty hunter who crosses paths with Cavendish and offers to escort him for a price. Silas is also running from a gang of outlaws, led by a fur coat clad Ben Mendelsohn, that he used to be a member of.
John Maclean, writing and directing his first feature, paints a unique version of the American West. It is a harsh environment full of pitiless people (Indian killers, the aforementioned gang, run-of-the-mill desperate people) and twists of fate that would be right at home in a Coen brothers yarn. None of that should come as a surprise, but it is how Maclean balances those elements so that it is not such a heavy, depressing slog. Maclean never wastes an opportunity for a good laugh, keeping the humor appropriately dark with a subtle Wes Anderson storybook atmosphere.
Those elements might seem weird to have in a story that often feels nihilistic and absurdist, but it all comes back to McPhee’s not-your-average protagonist. He is a ray of sunshine, a rare sliver of hope in a world that rages against that sort of thing. His determination and purity cut through all the roughness and seems to have a profound effect on Fassbender’s rough and tumble gunslinger.
Slow West is a slow burn thriller, where small details matter and the violence is very deliberate. No one ever feels the need to use more than one bullet, keeping their shots precise. The tension rockets, though, when Silas and Jay have to race Silas’ gang to the Ross family cabin and prepare for a gun blazing climax, ending the movie on an exclamation mark instead of an ellipsis.