Slow West

 

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This is the western that earned for John Maclean the 2016 Film Award of the London Critics’ Circle for Breakthrough Filmmaker now named in memory of Philip French.

 

The western is such a well-established genre that one might assume that these days the most that could be attempted would be clever variations on its established traditional features. Slow West, a first feature written and directed by John Maclean defies any such notion and is that rare creature a western that puts you on the edge of your seat as again and again it comes up with the unexpected. A further part of the film’s attraction lies in the reliably beautiful colour photography of Robbie Ryan who, actually shooting in New Zealand and in Scotland, persuades us that for the main part we are in Colorado in 1870.
 

Slow West

Pale rider: Kodi Smit-McPhee

 

In point of fact, Scotland does briefly play a part. At the start a voice over explains that this is the tale of a youth named Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who left Scotland to follow the girl he loved, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who had gone to America with her father (Rory McCann). Thus Slow West (an odd, daring and surely inappropriate title) becomes the story of the inexperienced Jay discovering the hazards of the American West at that time. He has more than one encounter which could easily prove fatal but for the help given to him by a stranger (Michael Fassbender) who, unknown to him, is a bounty hunter. Similarly he is unaware that Rose and her father have a price on their heads, so if this stranger aids him in his lovelorn quest he may have hidden reasons for doing so.
 
Clever writing, notably slick editing and impressive performances (Ben Mendelsohn appears as another outlaw encountered by our travellers) make for a powerful work which is very much a director’s film. My only disappointment with it lies in the climax featuring that old cliché of a gunfight in which those heavily outnumbered defeat the villainous opposition. But it is the case that Maclean continues to surprise us to the end and creates a finale in which it is not too predictable who will live and who will die. Slow West amply justifies the award as Breakthrough Filmmaker given to John Maclean.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo.

 

Dir and Screenplay John Maclean, Pro Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Conor McCaughan and Rachel Gardner, Ph Robbie Ryan, Pro Des Kim Sinclair, Ed Roland Gallpois and Jon Gregory, Music Jed Kurzel, Costumes Kirsty Cameron.

Film4/BFI/New Zealand Film Commission/a DMC Film/See-Saw Films/Rachel Gardner Films production etc.-Lionsgate UK.
84 mins. UK/New Zealand/Australia. 2015. Rel: 26 June 2015. Cert.
15.