One film genre that hasn’t really seen that much love in the past few years has been the Western. Sure there have been some but none of them have really been attention grabbing and none of them have seen much acclaim (although I could be wrong). The last Western that I saw with high levels of acclaim was the Coen Brother’s True Grit and it’s here that Slow West comes in. This is easily the best Western I’ve seen since True Grit, and is a film which clearly owes a debt to the Coen Brothers.
The film concerns Jay Cavendish, a Scottish boy and nephew of the Lord of his village in Scotland travelling through the American West to find the woman he loves, Rose. Along the way, he meets up with Silas, a bounty hunter who agrees to escort Jay to where Rose is, since if Jay went on his own, he would most likely die. However, unbeknownst to Jay, there is a bounty on Rose and her dad meaning they have to contend with other bounty hunters. Whilst the plot of the film itself is really good that doesn’t seem to be the main focus of the film, instead of the focus being on the relationship between Jay and Rose, it focuses on Jay’s journey with Silas and what happens along the way, mainly the people that they meet, all of whom are their own different brand of crazy. It’s here where the comparisons to the Coen Brothers come in. Many of the characters and the conversations throughout the film feel right at home in the Coen universe alongside characters like Jesus in The Big Lebowski and the Bear Guy in True Grit, complete oddballs who don’t really add much to the plot but create a unique experience. These characters also serve to show the true natures of Jay and Silas, Jay being incredibly naive and always seeing the good in people and Silas being more hardened, having been in the West much longer and seeing the true horrors that unfold. The main thing that makes the film work though is its humour. Even in the darkest moments of the film it is frequently laugh out loud hilarious, mainly due to the great writing and direction by John Maclean. It’s incredibly dark humour and works really well with the tone of the film as a whole, moments of levity in a dark, dangerous world. This is also a film where the title is really apt. This is very much a slow burner of a film and this allows this great atmosphere to develop, sucking you into the world these characters are in.
The performances meanwhile help sell the dark and humourous tone. Kodi Smit-McPhee is great as Jay, having a near flawless Scottish accent, along with his wide eyed face selling the naivety of the character. His performance also helps his love for Rose work so well. Throughout the film we are never in doubt that Jay is madly in love with Rose and McPhee shows this great determination throughout the film. This relationship is aided by Caren Pistorious as Rose who shows both why Jay would fall in love with her, but also that the relationship is one sided. It’s clear that Rose cares for Jay, but more like a sister and Pistorious shows this really well. Michael Fassbender meanwhile is great as Silas. There’s this dark, violent quality to the character, but also a patience to the character and, as the film goes on, you see the optimism of Jay getting to him, allowing him to see the good in the world again. There are also great performances in smaller roles from Ben Mendehsohn, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt (who gives easily the funniest performance in the film) and Kalani Queypo but talking about them would spoil the film.
The technical side of the film is excellent as well. Considering that this is his first film, John Maclean’s direction is excellent, making great use of the New Zealand landscape to recreate the American West, aided by top notch cinematography from Robbie Ryan, having a great sense of timing for all the jokes and directing the shoot-out scenes incredibly well. The music by Jed Kurzel meanwhile adds to the overall atmosphere to the film, reminding me a lot of Neil Young’s score for Dead Man, in a good way, creating this unique vibe to the film.
Overall, Slow West is one of the best westerns to be released in recent years, making for a strong feature debut for John Maclean. A great story, very Coen-esque humour and excellent performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee create this great darkly humourous world, helping to create one of the stand out films of the year.
My Rating: 5/5