There’s something strange about the frontierland in writer-director John Maclean’s darkly hilarious, unexpectedly poetic Slow West, but as soon as you put your finger on what it is, it’s tough not to laugh. For his spin on the Wild West, where hard men find purpose and soft ones an early grave, the Scottish director cast an Aussie and an Irishman (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender) as a dewey-eyed Scot and the Eastwood-esque loner guarding him on the quest for a lost love (Caren Pistorius), then shot the thing in New Zealand without a single American face in the main cast. Slow West is the genre presented from the perspective of an enthusiastic tourist.
The film is also a Coen-esque fairy tale that captures the sun-scorched allure of the West even as it playfully satirizes what so fascinates us about the time period. It’s alternately grim and gut-busting, capable of fully immersing audiences in an atmosphere that evokes John Wayne classics but is more than willing to turn the tables on them again and again, with deliciously crafted observations about the innate ridiculousness of an era glutted with gunslingers. More than most Westerns, Slow West, with a sly wit and energy to spare, imparts a real sense of what it might have felt like to live in such lawless times.
Our would-be hero is the pathetically skinny, ghostly pale Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old boy who’s so convinced in the enduring power of love that he travels from his native Scotland across the American frontier in search of the beautiful, brave Rose (Pistorius), who fled there with her father (Rory McCann) after an accident for which Jay feels responsible. Laughably out of his depth, Jay has a gun in his face before the title appears, only to be rescued by hardened traveler Silas (Fassbender). The unlikely duo traverse a harsh and beautiful landscape, pursued by cutthroat bounty hunters (including one played to a tee by Ben Mendelsohn), as they search for Jay’s paramour.
Slow West is often true to its name, with simmering tension only occasionally bubbling over into gruesome violence, but the laconic pace works to immediately establish a intriguingly dreamlike sense of place. Shooting in New Zealand was a smart move on Maclean’s part – without any recognizable American landmarks, the film unfolds in an almost mystical version of West, filled with dark forests and breathtakingly vast plains.
The feeling of fantasy doesn’t end with the setting, though – as Jay and Silas gradually get to know one another, it becomes apparent that both are caught up in delusions of a sort, Jay more obviously. The scrawny kid has an image of himself as a romantic lionheart, swooping in to save his girl from perils she can’t face herself, that just doesn’t jibe with reality, and his lack of respect for the West’s many dangers means his life is perpetually a hair’s breadth from ending in a hail of bullets. Utter bafflement approaching sheer panic is a mode Smit-McPhee plays brilliantly, and very often.
Even the truth of Jay’s love for Rose is distorted by the kid’s flowery, poetic daydreaming – when we finally meet her, she’s a thrillingly self-possessed woman, fiercely intelligent, characteristically kind-hearted and certainly not a damsel Jay needs to come save. As played by the excellent Pistorius, Rose is more akin to True Grit‘s Mattie Ross than a traditional Western filly.
Silas, too, is so committed to his Han Solo-esque wanderer status that he’s stopped questioning whether that’s really what he wants for his life. Caught up in the carefree, cool-as-a-cucumber representation his livelihood affords him, Silas is lying to himself as well. “Let’s drift,” he grunts to Jay before setting out to ride, but he’s far more verbose in narration, suggesting that the disinterest is really just part of a performance he’s forgotten he’s playing. Fassbender, as usual, nails every nuance, once again asserting himself as one of the most resourceful actors of his generation.
As Jay and Silas close in on Rose and her father, with all manner of unsavory characters also picking up their scent, Slow West shifts, almost imperceptibly, from lyrical Western to full-on Shakespearean tragedy, calling to our attention just how similar the genres have really been all along. Any lingering romantic visions of the frontier are mercilessly dispatched by furious gunfire, with hopes and dreams giving way to overwhelming loneliness, adversity and savage bloodletting. After its near-mythic opening and middle acts, the film builds, even clear blue skies made baleful, to a crescendo of startling savagery. The truly incredible final shoot-out takes place around a little cabin abridging a wheat field, and the heart-stopping yet morbidly humorous manner in which Maclean stages it needs to be seen to be believed.
The director isn’t content just to conclude his film with such a vicious, visceral assault – Maclean purposefully undermines the film’s biggest emotional beat with a sight-gag that first surprises then elates, yielding more belly-laughs than you’d ever expect to get out of a movie like this. And in a nutshell, that’s what’s so brilliant and brave about Slow West. Maclean runs the gamut from romance to action to horseshoe-black humor, never settling on one tone but instead shuffling between them with the deftness of an expert cinematic marksman. The director aims extraordinarily high in his first feature – and hits the bullseye dead-on.
Subverting a classic set-up with thoughtfully elegiac conversations, uproarious sight-gags and wincingly brutal violence, Maclean has made a mean, lean Western that's more viciously entertaining and visually mesmerizing than anything in the genre since 2010's True Grit.