To say that writer/director John Maclean’s feature debut is unconventional would be an understatement. Set in the northwest United States in the year 1870, none of Slow West‘s major players are themselves American. It was even filmed out of the country, in rural New Zealand. The plot lingers in familiar territory, as it follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old British boy hailing from an aristocratic family, traveling to the United States in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of his life. Naive as he is, he is saved from a sticky situation and taken in by drifter Silas (Michael Fassbender). The brilliance of the film lies in the unfamiliar way it travels this familiar narrative territory.
“Slow West” is an apt title. Purposefully underwritten, the film moves slowly despite its slim runtime of 84 minutes. Dialogue is sparse, and character back stories are built via dreamlike flashbacks and Fassbender’s voice overs, snuck in between slow takes of Jay and Silas riding through the gorgeous countryside. Smit-McPhee does a fine job, proving capable of handling the responsibility of personifying youthful romanticism against the film’s atmosphere of wistful, whimsical melancholy (think Joel & Ethan Coen, for convenient reference). Fassbender is, unsurprisingly, fantastic, putting his own cigarillo-chewing spin on the “world weary drifter” archetype. However, it is rural New Zealand that steals every scene. This is a good thing.
Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan turn Slow West into one of the most beautiful films of the year, giving the New Zealand countryside a dreamlike quality that fits in perfectly with the heavy doses of magical realism mixed in throughout. Jay and Silas’ chance encounters along their journey all feel whimsically unreal in their own unique way. The gorgeous, surreal, contemplative cinematography (accompanied by quirky yet sorrowful music from Jed Kurzel) are punctuated by flashes of violence and wry humor. All of these elements come together to make Slow West feel truly unique within its well worn narrative path.
The beauty of the countryside, of swaying wheat fields and seemingly endless landscapes, clashes harshly with the ugliness of greedy men. Fassbender’s narration gives it a dose of noir-like fatalism, supported by Jay’s innocence and naivete meeting the harsh violence of reality on the frontier. As bleak as Slow West appears at times, its final minute is both poetic, humanist, and poignant, standing as the perfect finishing touch on Maclean’s truly impressive debut.
★★★★½ out of 5