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Slow West
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by Jay Seaver

"A western that follows its own trail."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: I am not sure whether John Maclean narrowly misses the tone he's going for with "Slow West" or hits it dead-on; even considering that westerns are relatively rare these days, this one feels a little different. I consider that no bad thing, especially since the film co-stars Michael Fassbender, who should be in westerns whenever he's got the chance.

This one starts out following Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sixteen-year-old kid from an aristocratic family in Scotland who has journeyed to the American West in 1870 to reunite with Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), the young woman he loves. It is something of a miracle that he has made it as far as he has, and he's probably lucky that when he encounters Silas Selleck (Fassbender) on the trail, the seasoned gunslinger opts to serve as Jay's escort rather than rob him and leave him for dead. It seems like a good arrangement, but since Silas doesn't talk much at all, it's no surprise that there's something he's hiding from Jay.

Slow West doesn't look much like what has come to feel like the typical western, and that is not just because it was shot in New Zealand rather than California. Most westerns focus on the desert landscape, an easy way to evoke the dangers and lawlessness of the frontier, but Jay is optimistic and admittedly fairly sheltered as the film starts, and to him the West is beautiful and fertile, bursting with color and wonder. It's a contrast to the flashbacks to Scotland, where even the heady moments with Rose take place in a grey and worn-down environment, and Maclean is able to use that beauty as fairly explicit camouflage, with danger hiding amid the beauty.

That's important, because even worth the movie running a compact 84 minutes, having Jay remain too trusting would remove any admiration the audience may feel for his positive outlook to make him simply the butt of jokes. Some of his illusions are dashed in horrible fashions, but the way the film evolves is interesting - yes, it gets darker both literally and figuratively, but in a way that gives the audience moments to mull over how the adventure and anarchy of this time exist side by side. Maclean unveils a dark sense of humor as the film proceeds, but occasionally leavens it with the sort of generosity that many more cynical filmmakers would not just avoid, but mock.

The film is seldom just a two-person show, but the nature of being on the trail means that Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender are carrying a lot of weight. They're up to it, with Smit-McPhee especially interesting as a teenager that carries privilege without arrogance, encountering the West with shock but not the near-stupidity often given this sort of character. Fassbender is a little more restrained than one might expect - he's a guy who could do the gravel-voiced, ultra-cynical outlaw without irony and make it stand up - but impressive as a guy apparently carrying enough morality alongside his harsh pragmatism to have to think about his actions. They met a number of interesting folks along the way, with Ben Mendelsohn as an old acquaintance of Silas's and Andrew Robertt as a sort of German anthropologist standing out. A level above them is Caren Pistorius, who makes Rose intriguingly multifaceted for her relatively short time on screen.

They play in a movie that is, had been mentioned, fairly short by modern standards (although it's perfect classic b-movie length), and which often seems to unfurl at a relaxed pace, with room for eccentric bits of camerawork, detours that don't always reveal a greater purpose, and scenes which may have an odd fizzle to their endings contrary to the genre's reputation for decisive action. Despite that (and the film's very name), it's got some impressively tense and thrilling parts, including a pretty great finale that loses little power despite Maclean including a joke that I kind of can't believe he went for.

Doing things like that can throw the audience off; there are times when "Slow West" seems like it should either crank the tension up or more regularly embrace absurdity. A little more consideration, though, and it's impressive just how much Maclean had made this genre his own thing without being particularly revisionist. It's right on the border between traditional and reinvented westerns, and that process to be a fine frontier to explore.

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originally posted: 04/25/15 14:23:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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  15-May-2015 (R)
  DVD: 07-Jul-2015

  26-Jun-2015 (15)

  DVD: 07-Jul-2015

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