Saturday, 1 August 2015

Film Review: Slow West

Slow West is an action western that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year - starring Kodi Smith-McPhee, Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn, this captivating period piece might feel slow, but it doesn't pull any punches either.

Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is a Scotsman travelling west across America in search of his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius) - after the latter fled to America with her father (Rory McCann), Jay decided to set off in pursuit of his true love across the sea, and through the wilderness. It's here that he meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who agrees to accompany him on his trek and guide him through the untamed country.

As the title suggests, this is not a fast-paced film. Slow West is a slow burn, and first-time director/writer John MacLean is certainly in no hurry to race towards a climax. We get plenty of horseback riding, campfire sitting and general chit-chat between Jay and Silas as they continue on their journey westward. But this leisurely pacing works in MacLean's favour; by exploring their motives, and building their relationship, he weaves this really rich, character-driven story brimming with simmering tension and drama.

It might be his debut film, but MacLean carries himself with the self-assured direction and storytelling of a seasoned filmmaker. Plus, the film looks gorgeous; MacLean's direction drinks in the gorgeous vistas and untamed wilderness that surrounds his two lead characters. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Westerns that play on that idea of 'the frontier', and majestical natural sights our two lead characters come across in Slow West really made me drool.

That's not to say this film doesn't have any edge to it. On the contrary, MacLean juxtaposes the beautifully calm environment with some surprisingly dark scenes, at least in an ethical sense. There's not a lot of blood, or gore in this Western; people do get shot, but it's never gross or indulgently violent.

Instead, Slow West toys with a lot of ethical themes, many of which are familiar to the genre; responsibility, looking after oneself, moral bankruptcy. Jay and Silas exchange a lot of musings on love and marriage, or at least they try to as well as they can for two men anyway. A lot of these themes aren't new, but they are tackled in a way that is cleverly constructed and make you think. Without spoiling anything, one scene set in a general store is simply fantastic for this reason, especially when you get to the haunting sting at the end...

Both Smit-McPhee and Fassbender deliver wonderfully nuanced performances in this film; even in the brief 80 minute runtime, we learn about and feel so much for Smit-McPhee's ultimately naive pursuit of Rose. However, the real message of the film is shown through Fassbender's character - it's simple, but told effectively. Also, both are set to appear in X-Men: Apocalypse next year (Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler), so it was cool to see how the two got on in something substantially smaller scale.

I really liked the score to this film as well; frivolous and chirpy, it almost sound like it had been ripped from a Wes Anderson film (sidenote: how cool would that be? A Wes Anderson Western!) Anyway, at only 80 minutes long, watching Slow West isn't a huge commitment; it feels longer than that, but in a good way. Like I said, the leisurely pace only serves to build character drama and tension.

The Verdict: 9/10

One of the smaller and more unexpected delights I've enjoyed this year, Slow West is intelligent, engaging and visually captivating foray into a genre that lost its spark many decades ago. Smit-McPhee is great, and works well alongside Fassbender. It's easily a strong contender for my end of year Top 10.

Slow West is available on DVD and VOD now

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