“Slow West” is now playing on DirecTV and on video-on-demand. R, 1:24, three and a half stars out of four.
The movie is filmed in New Zealand, starring two Australian actors and an Irish actor, and was written and directed by a Scotsman.
So, of course, “Slow West” is a Western.
But before you get your chaps in a twist over a group of fur’ners making a movie in a classically American genre, the ghost of Sergio Leone would like a quick word. Westerns, like kung fu movies and swords-and-sorcery films, have long since gone beyond their regional roots to speak to audiences everywhere. And a non-native viewpoint may be helpful in exploring the archetypes of the genre.
That’s true in the odd and elegant “Slow West,” which is indeed somewhat slow – or at least comtemplative. But writer-director John Maclean (a former member of The Beta Band) salts his tale with enough quick violence, memorable characters and a beautiful fatalism that lingers after its rather brief 84-minute running time.
The film’s gorgeous vistas, shot in New Zealand, would make it ideal for big-screen viewing. Unfortunately, it looks like it won’t make it to the big screen in Madison, instead available on video-on-demand viewing and for DirecTV subscribers.
We follow the journey west of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee), a Scottish teen of noble breeding. Jay is woefully ill-equipped both physically and emotionally for the frontier life, but he is determined to be reunited with his childhood love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann of “Game of Thrones”).
He gets some welcome assistance from a seasoned gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to take him across the Colorado frontier. But why would a hardened survivalist like Silas agree to help an innocent lamb like Jay? The answer may have something to do with the folded-up “Wanted” poster in Silas’ pocket – the one with Rose’s face on it. There’s also a band of outlaws following close behind our pilgrims, led by the aptly-named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), wearing a giant fur wrap as if to suggest he’s the biggest animal in the forest.
“Slow West” follows in the tradition of recent Westerns (“Unforgiven,” “The Homesman”) that aim to de-romanticize the Western. The frontier is a place of hard choices and easy suffering, where a pitiless version of Darwin’s law holds sway. Maclean often offers us glimpses of traditional Western pleasures before turning the tables on our expectations. Just as we’ve finished enjoying a thrilling shootout between Jay and Silas and a pair of husband-and-wife thieves in a general store, for example, Maclean shows us the couple’s starving children, waiting patiently outside.
But there are moments of black humor throughout (the unfortunate fate of a woodsman gets a big laugh), and glimmers of redemption, as Silas almost against his will starts to bond with his idealistic young charge. “Slow West” is a fine filmmaking debut for Maclean, not so much destroying our illusions about the Wild West so much as gently packing them away, like old storybooks America has outgrown.