Slow West

Shave every day and you'll always look keen.

Shave every day and you’ll always look keen.

(2015) Western (A24) Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Ken Blackburn, Alex Macqueen, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Shalley, Stuart Martin, James Martin, Tony Croft, Karl Willetts, Edwin Wright, Andrew Robertt, Brian Sergent, Bryan Michael Mills, Kalani Queypo, Stuart Bowman, Brooke Williams, Madeleine Sami. Directed by John Maclean

The Western is kind of a finite genre. There are all sorts of stories you can tell in that setting, but by and large, most of them have already been told for the most part. You can go the ultra-violent route, or the lyrical; either way, there isn’t a lot that can be completely classified as new and exciting when it comes to Westerns.

Young Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), the son of a Scottish aristocrat, has come to Colorado territory in 1871 (just five years before it would achieve statehood) in search of a girl – now that’s something I’d expect a 16-year-old to do. The girl, Rose Ross (Pistorius) has fled Scotland under somewhat obscure circumstances (which are, to be fair, revealed as the events unspool) and Jay, who was head over heels for her, has decided that the only thing to do is go be with her in America if that’s what it takes. So he heads out, woefully unprepared, into territory full of bandits, desperadoes and bounty hunters.

When he comes afoul of a former Union army officer (Thomas) he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a brooding, lonesome rider who has an agenda of his own. He agrees to protect Jay on his journey to find Rose, whose location he has discovered. Also on the way is Payne (Mendelsohn), a dandified bounty hunter who knows that Rose has a price on her head and means to collect.

That’s essentially all the story there is, but that’s all freshman director John Maclean needs. Maclean is better known for playing keyboards for the Beta Band, a Scottish band with a cultish following. His direction here has an autumnal quality; we get a sense of inevitability throughout, as we watch the young boyish Jay try to navigate the ugliness of men and the beauty of the land and reconcile the two. He is aided by the world-weary Silas, who knows both land and men and doesn’t trust either. Jay’s naiveté touches him and he ends up with an almost fatherly protective stance. It’s an interesting turn of  character and Fassbender pulls it off flawlessly.

Fassbender actually makes quite a decent Western hero, so much so that I wouldn’t mind seeing him on horseback again. His rugged good looks remind me of the Western heroes of a bygone age; his demeanor reminds me of Gary Cooper. Silas’ relationship with Jay isn’t typical of the Western sidekick/rough rider but there are elements of that here. Jay isn’t quite as eager as the average sidekick, but then again this is more his story than Silas’.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives us some beautiful images to look at. At the same time, we have some gorgeous music to listen to but surprisingly, it wasn’t composed by Maclean – Jed Kurzel did. Kurzel also has a rock band background, although his pedigree is in the Australian blues-rock band The Mess Hall. The vaguely folkish background music compliments the imagery nicely and establishes the melancholy mood.

This isn’t likely to be remembered as a seminal work for either the filmmaker or the genre, but it is a strong debut nonetheless. Certainly I would have liked an ending that felt less inevitable and there’s a throwaway kind of visual joke in which a character, wounded in a shootout, has a container of salt struck by a bullet shortly after him, allowing the powder to fall onto the wounds. Get it? I will give you that the climax does have some emotional impact, but not enough emotional resonance if you get what I’m saying. Smit-McPhee gives some gravitas to the pathos, possibly more than the scene deserves.

All in all, this is a strong work that made some waves at Sundance this year. It’s out on VOD and playing in selected theaters and should be one you’ll want to keep an eye out for. In a summer in which thoughtful, beautiful movies have been few and far between, this one stands out even if the field weren’t so weak. Maclean has a bright future as a filmmaker and you’ll want to get in on that action right away.

REASONS TO GO: Lyrically shot. Great music. Fassbender is a great Western hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Haphazard time jumps. Ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: Western violence and a few choice cuss words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The South Island of New Zealand substituted for the American West.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seraphim Falls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Max

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