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Slow West

D: John Maclean / 84m

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt

In the 1870’s, a young Scotsman by the name of Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is travelling alone across the American Mid-West in search of his true love, Rose Ross (Pistorius). Rose has fled to America with her father (McCann) after he accidentally killed a Scottish nobleman. As he passes through a burnt-out Indian settlement he meets Silas Selleck (Fassbinder), a loner who knows the territory and is willing to act as Jay’s escort and keep him safe until he finds Rose – for a price.

Jay has romantic notions that he and Rose will be able to resume the relationship they had back in Scotland, but what he doesn’t know is that her father’s crime has followed them across the Atlantic, and there is a bounty on their heads of $2,000, dead or alive. He’s also unaware that Silas is using Jay to find Rose and her father so he can collect the reward. And he’s further unaware that the gang Silas used to be a member of, led by Payne (Mendelsohn), are tracking them both in hopes of getting the bounty as well.

Along the way they stop at a trading post but a young couple try to rob the place. It leads to Jay shooting the woman, the first time he’s ever used a gun. When he and Silas leave, Jay discovers the couple’s two young children outside; he gives them the supplies he’s carried out by way of recompense. Jay later becomes distrustful of Silas and early one morning, leaves their camp and sets off alone again. On a barren plain he meets Werner (Robertt) who is hospitable and glad of the company, but when Jay wakes the next morning, Werner is gone and so are all of Jay’s possessions. Heading on in what he thinks is the right direction he’s eventually rejoined by Silas, who has everything that Werner stole.

As they find themselves getting nearer to where Rose and her father are living, they receive a visit from Payne who brings absinthe. The three men proceed to get drunk, yet when Jay goes off to relieve himself, Payne confronts Silas over his plans to claim the bounty. The next day, and with Payne and his gang close behind them, Jay and Silas set off on the last leg of their trek. But when they reach their destination, it’s not only Payne they have to worry about, but another bounty hunter, one who has got there before them.

Slow West - scene

A sombre, often downbeat Western, Slow West is nevertheless an engrossing, visually striking movie that tells a very simple tale with a great deal of panache. It’s a coming of age tale and a rite of passage movie as well as a journey of discovery, and is superbly acted by its talented cast.

It works best by focusing on the dreams and hopes of fish-out-of-water Jay, and how he matures over the course of his travels. In the hands of Smit-McPhee, and writer/director Maclean, Jay is one of the most fully rounded and believable characters of recent years (and any genre). His fervent belief that he and Rose are fated to be together is so compellingly drawn that what happens when they finally meet is like a punch to the heart. Jay is so focused on finding Rose that it colours his recollections of their time together in Scotland, and Maclean inserts flashbacks to those days at key moments in the narrative. As well as filling in Jay’s back story, these flashbacks serve to show how Jay’s romantic idealism has reached the point where he has travelled all the way from Scotland to find Rose – and that there’s every possibility that she won’t be as excited to see him as he hopes. It’s a feeling that develops as the movie progresses, and makes Jay’s naïve nature all the more credible, and all the more endearing.

Jay’s potentially misplaced confidence acts as a catalyst for Silas’s reassessment of his own life and needs. It’s a subtle transformation, handled expertly by Fassbender, and shows that it’s not just Jay who is on a journey of discovery, however unexpected it might be for Silas, or ultimately advantageous. His taciturn, withdrawn nature is slowly eroded by Jay’s determination, and in the end he behaves unselfishly and with a newfound purpose, and not just for Jay but for Rose as well, someone he doesn’t even know. Though this change of heart is rushed to make way for the traditional final third shootout – which is skilfully choreographed and assembled by Maclean and editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory – it’s still a sign of Maclean’s bold approach to his own script that it never feels like a contrivance but more of a well constructed fait accompli.

With both lead actors on such impressive form, it’s possibly one of the few movies where Mendelsohn is overshadowed, but he does play a secondary role and has far less screen time. As Jay’s romantic ideal, Pistorius plays Rose as an intelligent young woman who is more than aware of her place in the world, and Jay’s as well. Her scenes with Smit-McPhee have a charming quality to them that helps the viewer understand just what drives Jay to find Rose.

The movie’s strong, deceptively detailed script is enhanced by Robbie Ryan’s often stunning photography, its New Zealand locations (while not quite standing in for the Mid-West that convincingly) so beautifully depicted it’s hard not to stare in awe at the mountains that can be seen rising majestically in various backgrounds, or the clear, achingly blue skies above them. Aa a result, Maclean’s visual compositions range from dazzling to spectacular, and the landscapes that Jay and Silas travel through can be seen as characters in their own right (the ashen atmosphere surrounding the Indian settlement is a case in point). Add an evocative, mood-sensitive score from Jed Kurzel and you have a rare Western that speaks from the heart as well as from the mind.

Rating: 9/10 – one of the (so far) must-see movies of 2015, Slow West could have been another fifteen or twenty minutes longer, but that’s a very minor quibble; hugely impressive all round, this is a bona fide modern classic.