SLOW WEST

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3.5 stars
The list of westerns that feature a script which revolves around a protagonist (or two or more) on the trail of a woman (or a treasure trove or special place) is almost endless - think John Ford’s The Searchers or, more recently, the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men - and it’s a brave soul who tries to bring something fresh to that catalogue.
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BAFTA-winning British filmmaker John Maclean (Pitch Black Heist) is such a soul and he gets very close to pulling it off in his debut feature film Slow West. Set in the 19th century, his screenplay introduces us to Jay (Jodi Smit-McPhee – Romulus, My Father / The Road), a 16-year-old, well-born Scot who has travelled to Colorado in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius – Paper Giants: Magazine Wars / Offspring), the love of his life, who has had to flee Scotland with her father after a tragedy. There he meets a mysterious traveller called Silas (Michael Fassbender – Shame / 12 Years A Slave), who offers to act as his paid guide and protector as they travel west through hostile country. Needless to say, though, Silas has a past… and his own agenda. There’s also another group on Rose’s trail, and Jay’s, led by the vicious Payne (Ben Mendelsohn – The Place Beyond The Pines / Black Sea) and he’s not concerned with Jay’s love life.

What’s of primary interest here is the relationship between Silas and Jay. The two couldn’t be more different: one a guileless boy from a protected background who harbours romantic notions about love and life in the new world and the other a cynical, bitter man with a worldview that sees little of value in life outside of money. Forced together, this odd couple can’t help but learn from each other and, almost by osmosis, they begin to undergo change, glacial though it may be. This give-and-take isn’t so much by word, for neither of them is verbose and they are apart for periods of time, but more by deed. It’s a subtle but important exchange and it’s interesting to watch it unfold.

The second, understated strand of Maclean’s script observes the demise of the Native Americans. The scenes showing the expiration of their culture are always seen in passing and not given prominence but they are impossible to ignore. Of them, Maclean has said, “The subtext is more about the native culture than about the Scottish people going to America - when you study what happened to the Native Americans in the West, it is just absolutely horrific. But that’s another movie. I wanted to keep Slow West about a young person’s search for love with everything else just bubbling under – the issues are not spoon-fed to you, they are just there.”

The film builds slowly to a violent, and somewhat surprising, conclusion set in a wheat field; in fact, the land is very much a feature, almost a character, in Slow West. It’s interesting to note, then, that these stunning landscapes are not in Colorado but the South Island of New Zealand! Co-producer Emile Canning explains, “We were very aware of the options that the landscape there gave us. There’s incredible opportunity in New Zealand: you go one stretch of road and you’re in Scotland and you go on another stretch of road and you’re in Ireland then another and you’re in Devon in the UK. On the South Island we found vast expanses of uninhabited land with amazing texture that we could see as Colorado.”

Naturally, actors of the calibre of Fassbender and Mendelsohn are going to provide beautifully nuanced characterisations of their roles and they do, but it’s the younger actors Smit-McPhee and Pistorius who supply the real heart of the film. McPhee, particularly, is excellent. Slow West is revealed through young Jay’s eyes and the 17-year old Australian actor brilliantly captures not only his character’s naivety and awkwardness but also his inner strength and integrity. It’s a terrific performance. If you’re prepared to accept that a seemingly old-fashioned ‘oater’ can be turned into a European-style road movie, then this is for you. It’s a fresh, clever look at an old western yarn.

// IAN TAYLOR

Previewed at Roadshow Theatrette, Pyrmont, Sydney, on 1 June 2015

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STARRING
Michael Fassbender
Kodi - Smit-Mcphee
Caren Pistorius
Ben Mendelsohn

DIRECTOR
John Maclean

SCREENWRITER
John Maclean

COUNTRY
UK / New Zealand

CLASSIFICATION
M

RUNTIME
84 minutes

AUSTRALIAN
RELEASE DATE
June 4, 2015
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Slow West (2015) on IMDb
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