VOD film review: Slow West
Simon Kinnear | On 04, Nov 2015
Director: John Maclean
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn
Watch Slow West online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Early in Slow West, narrator Silas (Fassbender) remarks of his travelling companion Jay (Smit-McPhee) that “he saw things differently”. The same might apply to director John Maclean, whose career in (the late, great) The Beta Band provided one of British indie music’s more interesting detours.
How fascinating, then, that Maclean has chosen cinema’s most traditional genre, the Western, for his feature debut. Has this one-time visionary sold out? Certainly, Slow West works as a very traditional tale of outlaws and settlers, of men on horseback and gunfights and Injuns and posters declaring “Wanted: Dead or Alive”.
However, beneath the gorgeously classical style lurks a rather more thoughtful and complex take on the Western. Maclean was the sampling ace in The Beta Band and there’s the sense that this is more remix than cover version, probing the well-worn grooves to detect submerged baselines in the pioneer trail, and warping the Western’s folk familiarity with unusual emphases and whimsical digressions.
The director’s heritage plays a part: he’s Scottish, as is Jay, newly arrived in America to look for his old flame, Rose. Silas, who more or less hires himself to be Jay’s chaperone, is Irish. Along the way they meet Congolese musicians, a Swedish family, a German anthropologist and Payne (Mendelsohn, Aussie accent undisguised) as a gang leader.
In other words, this is an unusually precise study of an America where there are no Americans. That is, unless you count the natives, variously hunted by soldiers, their reservations destroyed; or lurking ghost-like in the woods. Jay and Rose harbour fantasies of firing bows and arrows, and sure enough there’s a war-painted Injun firing arrows in the final battle. The German is writing a book cataloguing colonial atrocities… but even he is hardly a paragon of moral virtue.
This is the hidden history of the West(ern), given a rare prominence until it threatens to overpower the by-rote journey of Jay, blissfully unaware that Rose and her father have a bounty on their heads. We never learn who they killed or why; death is simply matter-of-fact here, as necessary a transaction as any other provision – and Maclean stages one tense stand-off in a trading post to make the connection clear.
But like any good sampler, you don’t want to lose the original tune entirely. So this works as a melodic riff on familiar themes, with Maclean’s handling of action exemplary (the climax is a sustained volley of gunfire in which various characters come together to trade bullets) and not without moments of whimsical mischief, notably a novel approach to drying wet clothes that delivers a cheeky punchline. The casting, too, shows a good eye, not least for finding reason to bring Fassbender and Mendelsohn (two of modern cinema’s most roguish actors) together in a Western. As for Smit-McPhee, between this and The Road, he is fast becoming a grizzled veteran of the trail while still in his teens.