I have never seen a Western quite like “Slow West.” From Michael Fassbender’s opening snarls of dialogue, there’s a touch of romance and magic to the film that gives it a defining whimsy, even in its darkest moments. This is not the wild west of John Wayne, but that of Jay Cavendish, “Slow West’s” charming but frightfully naïve hero played by a lanky and enchanting Kodi Smit-McPhee.
The feature-length debut of writer-director John Maclean, “Slow West” follows 16-year-old Jay on his romantic quest to reunite with his ladylove (Caren Pistorius), who fled their Scottish homeland for a new start in America. Astride a beautiful horse weighed down by luxury items like changes of clothes and a full porcelain tea set, Jay rides ever west, “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves” blithely unaware of the dangers that lurk around him. One such danger is instantly embodied by an absinthe-swigging brute named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, reveling in the Western oeuvre). Luckily, Jay first crosses paths with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender in full-on smolder mode), a hardened bounty hunter who offers to play bodyguard for a hefty fee.
Together Silas and Jay make for a mesmerizing Odd Couple. One is rugged and jaded, the other gentle and idealistic. At first, Fassbender’s Alpha Male rejects all attempts at camaraderie or conversation that young Cavendish dares to offer. But before long, Jay’s wide-eyed wonder at the world around him becomes infectious, rekindling a long lost sense of hope and purpose in Fassbender’s lonely outlaw.
The visuals of “Slow West” are similarly driven by Jay’s rose-colored worldview. Rather than the desolate vistas of Monument Valley, the wild west of this young lover is alive with color, flush with yellow fields of grain, peppered with purple flower patches, striped with white trees, and topped with sheets upon sheets of sparkling stars. It’s radiant and gorgeous, true to its Western roots.
The cinematography from Robbie Ryan is not only captivating, but also is imbrued with humor, an element laced throughout “Slow West.” Early on, it seems the wry sort, subtle and sophisticated. But as Jay and Silas embrace their evolving buddy comedy, things get silly — and in the best possible way. Slapstick is folded in with a dark streak of comedy that hits its finest moment in the third act with an idiom turned action that had this critic positively howling. But part of what makes the humor in the film so rich and rewarding is that its stars never lean into the jokes.
“Slow West” is full of fine performances. Fassbender and Smit-McPhee’s chemistry crackles from their first introduction. The doe-eyed ingendude makes the picture perfect babe in the woods, while Fassbender nestles deep into the sultry sex appeal of his rogue, then finds new colors in his regrets and fragile hope. When Mendelsohn enters the mix, threat and adrenaline come with him, along with a bad guy so damn charismatic it’s criminal.
All this builds beautifully to a finish that is dizzying in its impact; an action spectacle that is in turns thrilling, funny, heartbreaking and surprising. It’s the kind of sequence that should have studios taking notice and calling Maclean in for meetings about helming summer blockbusters.
This Scottish first-timer shows remarkable skill and talent here, creating a pastiche that is both respectful to the long history of Westerns and determinedly modern, unafraid of taking the genre in new directions. Like “Ex Machina” (also an A24 release), “Slow West” blends tones at will in a way that’s risky. But with a flawless ensemble and a whip-smart director, it comes together into a cocktail that balances beautifully its darkness and levity, its drama and comedy, its salty and sweet. All and all, “Slow West” is a modern masterpiece.
“Slow West” is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is available on DirecTV. Its theatrical debut and On Demand release will follow on May 15th.