John Maclean can’t complain about his directorial career so far. Starting in 2009 with Man on a Motorcycle, starring “newbie” Michael Fassbender, he then goes to win a Bafta on 2011 with Pitch Black Heist and is now giving us his written/directed first feature, Slow West. A western, you may ask? Yes, a western. Not a post-modern western, not a reinvention of the western genre, not a spaghetti western. We can maybe see some neo-western Jarmuch vibe to it, but that’s about it. The boy went big into a very dated, dust-filled genre. And boy, did he do good.
Jay Cavendish, son of Lady Cavendish (baby-faced Kodi Smit-McPhee) just arrived in the New World to look for his beloved Rose, who had to leave Scotland with her father in a hurry due to some yet untold circumstances. Managing to survive a couple of days on his own, he is saved from robbery by bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender), who sells him his protection. What Jay doesn’t know, though, is that there is a very nice fat bounty on Rose’s head and her father’s. What Jay kinda knows, but decides to be delusional about, is that Rose doesn’t correspond him on his high feelings. Silas previous gang, leaded by scary Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) is also looking for Rose, and thus the table is set, ladies and gentlemen.
The film starts, well, slow, but as soon as duo Jay-Silas starts heading West and the bodies begin piling up (for real), Jay is forced to lose his illusion of a brave, wonderful new world, and you, the audience, won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. Fassbender and his cigar-always-in-his-mouth attitude (and his narrating voice) guides you through a world that is eerie, wild and ultimately beautiful (shooting in New Zealand was indeed a great choice). Bambi-eyed McPhee holds his naive character with such a level of conviction, you can’t help but feel sorry for the kid. You know, despite he’s being stupid as a door. Rose (Caren Pistorious) is not given much screen time, despite being the reason this all started, but when she’s on it, what a force of nature! And such an unusual female character inside the genre, that she plays straight on, eyes on the target.
But the performances are nothing next to the witty, intelligent scriptwriting, that gives us memorable moments that last only a few minutes on screen. The humour present in Slow West deserves its own name and classification – realistic slapstick would be my already failed attempt to describe it, mixed with an out of nowhere lyricism that contrasts strongly with the blood and other human products sprayed on the floor.
In sum, it is original, it is funny, it is grim. Is it a dark comedy western? Is is an exploration of death in paradise? Do you really care what is it? Go see it. Bullets travel faster than thoughts.
Slow West will be in UK cinemas on 26th June 2015