Having grown up with Westerns, you'd think I'd come to them predisposed to loving them. Not so much. For every good Western, there are a saddlebag of worthless entries to go alongside. But, the Western is the one genre where, against the backdrop of a huge, never ending sky, just about any tale can be told. The Western in itself has been around since before cinema and hold a place etched in the public's mind. Given that the period depicted in most Westerns, normally called "The Old West", lasted only about four years, it has been a magnet for our imagination since the dime novel of the 19th Century. The Western has evolved, slowly, from Cowboys and Indians, to White Hats versus Black Hats, to Revisionism and then to Realism. All periods are fascinating to watch and all give a very interesting look at the inherent racism of the United States. The Godfather of the The Western, John Ford, created the standard Stagecoach, and then he pulled it apart with a series of films, starting with The Searchers (This link is Martin Scorsese on seeing The Searchers for the first time). Then an Italian, Sergio Leone saw a Western disguised as a Samurai film, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, remade it with a bit part actor from Rawhide, Clint Eastwood, as A Fist Full of Dollars and the Western's transformation stepped up a gear. The Dollar's Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West set a high water make for the type of Western that Eastwood would refine again and again in the 70's. Eastwood's refining of the gene that made him a star culminated in the perfect Realism Western, Unforgiven. Recently, we have had incredible Westerns, not all set in The West. Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's The Proposition is a truly incredible Aussie Western. Kevin Costner's Open Range is an ode to the sweeping epic of yore. The Coen Brother's True Grit captures the novel perfectly. At the London Film Festival last year I saw two Westerns, a Danish one, The Salvation which was disappointing in that it did very little new and The Keeping Room, which did, in spades. Now we have The Beta Band's John MacLean venturing out West with his writer-director début, Slow West.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (of The Road and ParaNorman fame) is Jay, a son of Scottish gentry drawn to America in search of his true, unrequited love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who has fled to Colorado with her father (Game of Thrones' own Hound, Rory McCann) following a tragic incident in Scotland. Armed with little more than a horse, a Colt and a handbook to the West, Jay is drawn across the wilderness to Rose, unaware of other elements also closing in. In a torched, burnt out Indian camp (beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan), confronted by deserters turned Indian hunters, Jay encounters and is saved by Michael Fassbender's Silas Selleck. Convincing young Jay that he needs his help, Silas has his own reasons for wanting to find Rose and her Father. It seems that their crime has followed them to the New World, with a $2000 bounty attached. The journey they take is beautiful and dangerous. With New Zealand ably filling in for the Colorado plains, the deep focus's of MacLean and Ryan's camera gives the world, and the distance they cover, an otherworldly aspect. The journey is interrupted by various moments of desperation and brutal violence. I recently wrote about the violence and lack of consequence it causes in modern TV and Film. For the most part, the effects of a Sharp's rifle and the usual inability of the bad guys to shoot straight aside, Slow West succeeds in slowing the true brutality and desperation of the frontier. The scene where Jay and Silas stop for supplies in a General Store is sharp, brutal and very effective. The sudden violence is countered by some excellent humour. Trees, clothes lines and Absinthe proving most effective in raising the laughs that the film uses perfectly to counter the bleaker, darker, aspects.
Slow West is stunningly shot and each of the main protagonists get a superb entrance. From Fassbender's Silas showing up masked and gun drawn, to the always effective Ben Mendelsohn. His Payne (he is the bad guy, hence the on the nose character name) sat astride his horse in full McCabe trackers coat is the ominous presence of what awaits. Mendelsohn's gang leader here is interesting. Mendelsohn can portray menace very easily, as proven recently in Bloodline and Black Sea. His weathered features and sad, cold eyes are wonderfully evocative. But here, his character feels slightly underused. The scene in the woods with the Absinthe is played perfectly by him and Fassbender. When Smit-McPhee wanders off to meet with Payne's gang, this gives us the opportunity for a great back-story played with an equally great voice over that again shows us the banality of the violence and the clichés of the old west. The final shoot out, where all our protagonists group together to claim their reward is beautifully shot and the action handled rather impressively for a first time director. With the cast attacking the house from various angles and directions, the deep focus, and the build up, allows you to keep abreast of what is going on and who is where. Again, the usual inability of the Black Hats to shoot straight and, having given us the brutality of what these weapons can do, the Western cliché of damage variability when someone is hit is disappointing, but by this point in The Western's evolution, I suppose we are used to it.
Overall, though, Slow West is a very assured début film. The story and use of flashback is well thought out and the innocence of Jay allows us into the brutal world of The West easily and with a humanity that is sometimes lacking in these films. Michael Fassbender is on top form, showing us again that he a remarkable actor. The way John MacLean deftly moves the action from violence to retrospection to humour and back again is a delight to watch and Slow West is certainly deserving of a revisit and place in the Blu Ray collection when the time comes.