I know that a whole library’s worth of books and treatises have been written about the Western, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert – nevertheless, I’ve seen a few Westerns in my time, and I think Slow West, which I went to see this afternoon, is a more than worthy addition to the genre.
The directorial debut of Scottish musician John Maclean, formerly of the Beta Band, it is set in the American West in 1870, though it was filmed in New Zealand, and is a UK-New Zealand co-production, starring an Irishman – Michael Fassbender – and an Australian, Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Smit-McPhee plays Jay, the young son of a Scottish laird, recently arrived in America in search of his lost love, Rose, who has had to flee Scotland with her father after an angry confrontation ends in tragedy, which Jay blames himself for.
Out in the wilds of the New World, Jay is way out of his depth, until an apparently fortuitous encounter with Silas (Fassbender), a bounty hunter who saves his life, and insists on chaperoning the boy to his destination. Jay reluctantly agrees, and so the odd couple set off. “Let’s drift,” says Silas, and they do – but this is to be no picnic, and before long they have witnessed – and Jay has participated in – a bloodbath in a remote provisions store, and we also come to realise that Silas’s old gang are on his tail, and are none too happy about his leaving their employ. But even more worrying for Jay, his companion has his own reasons for finding Rose and her father, which are rather less wholesome than Jay’s.
Like all the best Westerns, Slow West is as much about what isn’t said as what is, and Maclean is confident enough to let the silences, and the beautiful, unforgiving scenery, do a lot of the work, trusting his actors, and only giving us as much dialogue and backstory as we need, with a spare, well-judged narration from Silas occasionally filling in the blanks.
Fassbender increasingly resembles a younger Viggo Mortensen – he has a similarly weathered, melancholy face, which contrasts nicely with the open, pale features of Smit-McPhee. The other members of the cast are likewise superb – Ben Mendelsohn, as Payne, Silas’s former employer, and the rest of his gang, look like they’ve lived rough on the prairie their entire lives, and Caren Pistorius gives a nicely understated performance as Rose. Game of Thrones fans will be pleased to see Rory McCann as her father.
Though the film is called Slow West, and the pace seems unhurried, I don’t think there was a single moment in this picture when I felt bored – instead, I was entranced, and would strongly recommend it. It’s beautifully shot, by Robbie Ryan, and the original music, by Jed Kurzel, is some of the best I’ve heard in a movie in a long time. Watching it was a very moving experience, with a denouement that’s both terribly sad and simultaneously uplifting, without in any way being sentimental. Do try and see it if you get the chance.