Cert 15 | ★★★★☆
In an era when capes and dinosaurs rule the box office, is there room for the Western in mainstream cinema? In recent years the genre has been adapted by more left-field filmmakers such as The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom brought their own auteurish instincts to bear on well-worn genre tropes. It’s in this vein that Sundance hit Slow West embarks on its bleak journey.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay Cavendish, a Scottish youth trekking across America in search of his love, a young woman whom he inadvertently forced into exile. Unprepared for the trials that await him, he is joined by Silas (Michael Fassbender), a grizzled drifter who has his own reasons for getting Jay to his destination.
A low-key journey across a baron frontier, a simple premise grows into a story of hope in a place that has none. Breaking down the now unfashionable Western to its bare essentials, we see a bleak portrayal of 1800s America, littered with harsh realities and outlaws. The desolation of the film’s setting is countered by some beautiful dialogue, even if it does lapse into cliché at times.
Smit-McPhee played a similar role as Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road, and since that film he’s grown into a capable and engaging lead combining righteous conviction with a sense of being permanently overwhelmed. He’s the innocent counterbalance to Fassbender’s hired gun, a cynical embodiment of the classic Western hero. The pair encounter a variety of characters along their path, the most memorable a brief but unsettling appearance from Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Animal Kingdom) as bounty hunter Payne.
The tightly packed running time comes to an elegant yet brutish conclusion that’s in keeping with the tone of the film. It caps off an impressive introduction for debutant writer-director John M Maclean. A nostalgic treat for fans of the genre, and quite possibly the most intelligent film you’ll see all summer.