DIR/WRI: John Maclean • PRO: Iain Canning, Rachel Gardner, Conor McCaughan, Emile Sherman • ED: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory • DOP: Robbie Ryan • DES: Kim Sinclair • MUS: Jed Kurzel • Cast: Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann
John McClean, formerly of The Beta Band, continues his foray into filmmaking with his debut feature, the Western Slow West, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic Winner prize at Sundance earlier this year.
Slow West is definitely an unusual Western, a British New Zealand co-production with New Zealand standing in for Colorado. It takes more of a leaf from the anti-Westerns of the ’70s rather than its European ancestors, such as the Italian Spaghetti or the German Spätzle Westerns.
The pared-down plot has Jay (Kodi Smith Mc Phee), an infatuated milksop of aristocratic stock on a journey to find the woman he is infatuated with; Rose, a recent escapee from Scotland after the accidental killing of Jay’s uncle by her father. Rose and her father carry a bounty on their heads. Aware of this and helping Jay but really with his eye on the reward is the tough ruthless Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who constantly chews on cigars trying to mine his inner Clint Eastwood. Following them with similar intentions to Silas are another bunch of outlaw bounty hunters of various types led by Ben Mendelsohn, one of the busier go to bad guys working in film today. All of this will of course lead to the inevitable showdown.
Sounding like Bono’s long lost cousin, Fassbender’s Silas provides the narrative with a voiceover. The device feels like a band aid rather than a truly creative element, and proves quite intrusive at times.
The film is beautiful to look at, aided by the assured cinematography of Irish DoP Robbie Ryan and one cannot fault any of the performances (though Smith did grate on me personally as a character).
McClean’s eccentric execution is at once interesting and alienating, its absurdities fight against the human story trying to breakout. The use of characters as types begins to leave one a little cold towards the end. As said earlier, it reminded me of those early ’70s Westerns (The Hired Hand, Bad Company to name just two) that were concerned with revisionism and truthfulness regarding the history of the West and were informed by what was going on in the world of American politics and foreign policy at that time.
Compared to some of those films Slow West feels like it’s playing at being a Western – its sly nihilistic humour and elements of parody constantly mark out its eccentricities but don’t help give weight to its characters so that we can truly invest in the plight and denouement that inevitably comes. The so-called quirkiness mentioned by a lot of people outweighs its heart.
That said, it’s always nice to see a Western on the big screen.
15A (See IFCO for details)