Western Dreams: Maclean’s Accomplished, Stylized Debut
Scottish musician John Maclean makes a handsome directorial debut with Slow West, a period western set mainly in 19th century Colorado. But if Sergio Leone’s famed retro genre films earned the moniker ‘spaghetti western,’ than Mclean’s recapitulation and relocation is worthy of its own unique label, perhaps an Anzac (or kiwi?) western. Maclean’s pan-Euro flavoring is exactly what gives this familiar genre piece a high dose of unexpected flair, at times comedic and bloody, while maintaining a fatal romantic fixation for a societally primordial period.
Sixteen year old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has fled his family’s privileged heritage in Scotland to pursue his love interest, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), a young woman of meager means who left for America with her father (Rory McCann). Alone and running out of money as he wanders through the woods of Colorado to find the Ross’ homestead, Jay finds an unlikely ally and guide in Silas (Michael Fassbender), a lone bounty hunter. As they accompany one another, Silas learns they are seeking the same people, as the Ross family is wanted, dead or alive, for circumstances in Scotland that caused them to flee. Silas keeps this secret from Jay, using him as a tool to find his bounty. Meanwhile, a clan of other such men led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) is eager to find Rose and her father.
Filmed in the beautiful vastness of New Zealand, the locale has quite a pronounced effectiveness, its touches of unfamiliarity lending the film a surreal air. As filmed by DoP Robbie Ryan, it’s mannered, pronounced compositions tend to give the film an affected air, making it seem like an allegory. Maclean has previously filmed two short films with Michael Fassbender, who cuts a striking figure here as Jay’s protector. His gruffness belies a tenderness in his relation to the boy, yet another off-beat performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee (whose father Andy McPhee pops up in a small role as a Scottish farmer), used effectively here.
Shocking bits of violence are sprinkled throughout, such as the hold up of a general goods store by a Swedish immigrant, which ends badly and has a surprise twist that’s simple and terribly effective. Another instance involving an altercation with attacking natives showcases Maclean’s dark humor. Generally the scene stealer, Ben Mendelsohn shows up late in the game as an enigmatic leader of marauders. His relationship to Silas compounds Maclean’s layered motif of troubled father/son bonds.
Inevitably building to a customary showdown, Maclean manages a doozy of a finale with a rousing spray of bullets through a prairie home that’s a ballet of carnage recalling the old west version of the last stand in Straw Dogs (1971). Similarly reflecting the cruelty of a feral environment, the vein of greed threading throughout a nation’s foundation, and the tenuous human connections that (literally) caused some to flock across the ocean, Slow West is a solid juxtaposition of these warring elements.