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24 June 2015

Ho! For the West

If you can imagine a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set amid the sprawling, outlaw-ridden landscapes of the American West, John Maclean's accomplished new film Slow West is not far off. A sort of hybrid of True Grit (but with better weather) and pretty much any Sergio Leone film, Slow West features gorgeous, vibrant cinematography and strong central performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender.

As the film opens, Jay (Smit-McPhee), a Scottish teenager is lying on his back somewhere in the middle of the United States shooting stars — or at least pointing his pistol at them. After a bodged Mexican standoff — not the last in this film — he is rescued by Silas (Fassbender), a gruff outlaw of few words. "You need a chaperone and I'm a chaperone," Silas insists when he hears of Jay's plan to reach the west. There is, of course, a fee for such a service, and perhaps even the tempting $2,000 bounty that has been placed on Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of Jay's life, whose flight with her father to America prompted Jay's own journey.

Jay and Silas make an unlikely double act, although perhaps not as unlikely as Mattie and Rooster in True Grit, and as they travel slowly west, they learn a little about each other, love and life. We also learn a little more about Jay's past and what brought him to this point, mainly through brief dreams and reveries of his life back in Scotland with Rose. Amid the almost-bonding, however, it becomes clear that Jay and Silas aren't the only ones interested in finding Rose, and the limits of Jay's faith and his love for her are soon put to the test.

Slow West clocks in at just 1h25, but although there are many action-packed scenes, it still feels like a slow-burner in places. But the chemistry between Fassbender and Smit-McPhee is great, as we watch them to build an understated relationship that is somewhere between father-son and friendship. By giving the audience, but not Jay, reason to mistrust Silas, Maclean is able to create an air of unease and tension. Fassbender is excellent throughout, but Smit-McPhee takes a little longer to ease into the role; he comes into his own during the final act, though.

There are some sadder, more reflective moments, some great fight scenes and a couple of scares, but there are also some good lines and more than a few laughs in Maclean's script. During the film's gruelling but immaculately choreographed finale, there are a couple of great visual metaphors, especially one involving a jar salt during a particularly tense and emotional scene. The beauty of the photography and the attention to detail in Slow West are also particularly impressive. The end sequence takes place in and around a small hut so pristine and attractively styled that it looks like it came right out of Ikea's summer catalogue. New Zealand was doubling for the US in the film, and it makes me want to visit the former even more.

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