When it comes to Westerns, there are two major categories. You have you’re action packed, gun slinging actioners. They can be classic and cheesy like Red River, or violent and dark like The Wild Bunch. Then there’s the other category of Western, the contemplative mood piece. A style of Western pretty much perfected in movies like High Noon and The Unforgiven. If you were to tell me that in 2015, there’d be a really great contemplative mood piece western written and directed by Scottish musician, starring an Irishman, filmed in New Zealand, I’d call you a crazy son of a bitch. But now that I’ve seen Slow West, I feel like I have to apologise to you for that hypothetical slur
The late nineteenth century, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Mist-McPhee) leaves Scotland and travels to America in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Fleeing Scotland after her father (Rory McCann) killed Jay’s uncle, the Lord Cavendish (Alex Macqueen), Rose and her father have now become fugitives in their new home, with a $2,000 bounty on their heads. A bounty that has become the latest pursuit of bounty hunter, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender).
Teaming up, Jay and Silas make their way across the untamed land, encountering Native Americans, murderous bandits, and fellow bounty hunter, Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). With these encounters more often than not leading to violence and bloodshed, loyalties are rarely clear and the world these men inhabit only gets uglier with each step they take.
First off, Slow West is a legit Western. Way more legit than any western written and directed by Scottish musician, starring an Irishman, filmed in New Zealand has any business being. John Maclean has obviously done his genre homework and knew what he was doing when he wrote the screenplay. But it’s his direction that’s really impressive. If I didn’t know it was shot in New Zealand, I’d assume it was on some Oregon prairie. And the way he uses darkness, fog and other weird methods to obscure his shots, while also highlighting certain specifics, is the kind of visual touch that is only more impressive when I remember that this is his first movie.
Slow West is no modern masterpiece or redefinition of what a western can be, but it’s a more than solid movie and pretty remarkable as a director’s first hit out. It’s dark and moody and not afraid to get ugly with its violence. Fassbender is great as always and the only bad thing about Mendelsohn is that he’s not in it enough. Slow West didn’t get a theatrical release in Australia and I haven’t heard anyone talk about it. But it should be seen, and it should be talked about. If for no other reason than to make sure John Maclean gets to make another movie.