Placing the word ‘slow’ in the title of your film feels like asking for trouble, but the good news about British debut director John Maclean’s Slow West is that it weighs in at a taut 84 minutes. Its pace may be leisurely, but it’s fair to say a lot happens in that
Though it was shot in New Zealand and Scotland, it’s a western – one that sets up certain expectations about its characters, then elegantly dismantles them.
Two of them dominate the story, which is set in 1870. Silas (the ever-splendid Michael Fassbender) is a drifter and mercenary named Silas, an experienced outdoorsman who for $100 offers to take the innocent Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16 year old Scottish nobleman’s son, across dangerous terrain to Colorado, to reunite with Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of his life, from whom he was separated back in the old country.
An unexpected ending
But ambiguities abound. Is Silas essentially a good guy, or is he indifferent to Jay’s fate? Why are the pair being tracked by bounty hunters? And come to that, does Rose welcome being pursued across the American West?
Answers to these questions take their own sweet time to emerge. Maclean is good at setting up scenes that end abruptly, apparently without resolution, only for their meaning to emerge a little later. The story’s ending, true to form, is unexpected.
The main strength in Slow West is the relationship between Silas and Jay – the experienced man trying to teach the young innocent, exemplified in a scene with Jay shaving Jay with an open razor.
A part of American history
But there are also two masterly set-pieces, both involving gunfire and death - one set in a general store, the other in an isolated ranch house surrounded by cornfields, where attackers can easily hide.
There’s a high body count - all the deceased appear in turn at the film’s end in a kind of macabre roll of honour. But this was the Wild West, in which death was a fact of life. Maclean unflinchingly does honour to the truth of that part of American history.
That great critic Philip French, who sadly died last week, used to insist there was no such thing as a boring western; it’s a genre that inevitably reflects the preoccupations of the age in which it is made, and almost always deals with matters broader than its immediate story. As an unrepentant western fan myself, I agree. And I have a feeling Slow West will come to be seen as a classic in years to come.
Slow West is available on DVD for £9.99
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