A striking and well-crafted debut feature here from former Beta Band member, John Maclean. Slow West is a Western thriller, tinged with melancholy and packing a dark comic streak throughout.
The plot revolves around young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee), a Scottish boy who is trekking across the heart of America to search for his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose and her father were forced to flee their homeland due to events at least in part the fault of Jay. Motivated by love, regret and guilt, Jay appears wide eyed and hopelessly out of his depth. However, a seemingly chance encounter with a gruff drifter named Silas (Michael Fassbender), sees the pair strike up an uneasy alliance as the mysterious stranger offers Jay protection on the rest of his journey. As they make their way West to find Rose, they are shadowed by a cutthroat band of outlaws led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and their journey to find Jay’s love begins to take on a whole new meaning.
The film is primarily about young love and the lengths one obsessed young boy will go to in order to be reunited with his beloved. This all plays out however against a backdrop of brutal and indiscriminate violence that awaits young Jay at every turn. Maclean’s West is certainly a visually beautiful one, both the New Zealand woodland (doubling here as the American West) as well as the night sky itself, looks stunning throughout. Despite the visual beauty though, this West is also unforgiving and unremittingly violent. Native Americans are mistreated, innocent people are killed, children are left orphaned and nobody at all can be trusted.
Fassbender and Smith-McPhee share a great chemistry, with the former exuding a brutish machismo that perfectly fits the role of a great Western loner. As is often the case though, Ben Mendelsohn is the film’s secret weapon. Nobody does scuzzy and gnarled bad guys like him at the moment. Every time he appears on screen it just screams malevolence. If Jay is the hope filled dreamer of the piece, he is the dark spirit, the evil that lurks around the next corner. His first meeting with our central pair is a definite highlight, the tension increasing with every moment he stays in their camp plying them with booze.
At just 84 minutes in length, Slow West zips by. It’s an elegant yet brutal ride through a dog eat dog West that ramps up the tension as it goes and embraces its oddball humour when required. It’s a bold debut from Maclean who has here earmarked himself as a director to watch.