Westerns often have a mythic quality, but “Slow West” is more Brothers Grimm than John Ford.
Set in a dreamlike version of the American frontier, musician John Maclean’s feature directing debut is indeed very slow, but just odd enough to hold your attention.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) plays teenager Jay Cavendish, who has traveled from Scotland to search for his girlfriend, Rose (Caren Pistorius). She and her father fled their homeland after a tragedy involving Jay’s family, which we see in one of many explanatory flashbacks. Feeling responsible, Jay is determined to make things right, but he’s useless in this brutal environment.
When he meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), it looks like Jay might finally have an ally, someone tough enough to keep him alive. That turns out to be a complicated relationship, especially when Silas’ “friends” show up.
Maclean, who formed the Beta Band in the ’90s and started making short films a few years ago, has an eye for epic landscapes and the small details within them. The New Zealand locations don’t look much like 19th century America, but the audience’s subconscious association with Middle-earth works to Maclean’s benefit. This is a world of mists and visions, lost children, scary forests, love that spans continents. An Orc or two would not seem out of place.
The fairy-tale tropes are blown to bits whenever Maclean drops the poetry and gets real. There’s a new danger around every bend, and the gunfights are especially vicious. The final confrontation, a relentless barrage of blood and bullets, would make Sam Peckinpah proud.
These nods to authenticity clash with the rest of “Slow West.” The characters’ behavior makes sense only if you’re telling a fantasy story, so injecting reality highlights their mistakes.
Silas comes across well enough, but that’s probably due to Fassbender’s own charisma as much as anything. Smit-McPhee is stuck playing a kid who wouldn’t last a day in this world if he had 10 bodyguards. Rose and her family are even worse, making it hard to watch the climactic scenes without face-palming at everything they do.
Maclean, who also wrote the script, exhibits plenty of talent, and “Slow West” is a decent way to start a filmmaking career. He just needs to develop a consistent tone and better narrative logic. And maybe put “Fast” in the title, too. Just for inspiration.
Read more of Loey Lockerby’s work at suchacritic.com.
Rated R | Time: 1:24
ON THE FASS TRACK
Michael Fassbender not only stars in “Slow West,” but it’s also the first feature from his production company, DMC Films. The movie heralds a shift as he looks to broaden himself in the industry he’s risen to the top of.
“I don’t want to become comfortable and complacent because then there’s just no point in doing it anymore,” he says. “Just trying to involve myself in more areas, I suppose. Maybe one day to get behind the camera at one point would be something I’d like to do. But whether it will ever happen is another matter. Who knows in a few years’ time where my priorities will lie?”
▪ He recently finished shooting the “Steve Jobs” biopic, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. It’s due in October.
▪ He’s working on a “Macbeth” adaptation and a Terrence Malick film.
▪ Next year he’ll return to his successful franchises: “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Prometheus 2.”
▪ He’s producing and stars in an adaptation of the video game “Assassin’s Creed.”
| The Associated Press