Film Review | Slow West

Directed by a Scot and featuring an equally non-American cast, this Western may be traditional in some ways, but it's a quirky and refreshing re-tread of familiar tropes

Close shave: Michael Fassbender (top) and Kodi Smit-McPhee make for unlikely companions in John Maclean’s directorial debut
Close shave: Michael Fassbender (top) and Kodi Smit-McPhee make for unlikely companions in John Maclean’s directorial debut

On the hand, the Western is arguably the most American genre of them all. The clue is the title, of course, and key examples from the stable (!) also deal with sometimes still-raw aspects of American history and culture: treatment of the Natives, the pitfalls of establishing a country from scratch, and the overwhelming beauty – and attendant dangers – of the vast, unspoiled American landscape.

So it may seem paradoxical then, that this presumably American-as-can-be genre has also been taken up – time and time again – by foreign filmmakers. From the iconic Italian ‘spaghetti Westerns’ by the likes of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci – which often starred Clint Eastwood – to the influence of the genre on the wider net of world cinema – most notably Akira Kurosawa – the genre has proven to be pliable and easily translated across various cultures.

Australia, perhaps in large part by dint of a similar landscape to its US counterpars, has made its mark too – most recently with Nick Cave and John Hillcoat’s bruising The Proposition (2005).

But we may have come full circle this year. Shot in New Zealand, directed by a Scot and with a principal cast consisting of Irish, Australian and South African actors, this may be the international Western to end them all.


When a naïve Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sets sail to 1800s Colorado in search of the love of his life, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) he teams up with bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Micheal Fassbender), who offers his services as a bodyguard and guide. But soon enough, the vagaries of Silas’s profession catch up with the duo… and as it turns out, Silas may know more about the whereabouts of Rose than he lets on.

This impressive debut feature by John Maclean (former musician with lo-fi pop group The Beta Band) is yet another example of how Westerns, with their archetypal characters and fairy-tale plots, can have universal reach.

Filmed in a New Zealand doubling up for Colorado by a filmmaker who’s fresh but thankfully not just stumbling along – Maclean had directed two earlier shorts featuring Fassbender too – Slow West tells a simple story, but its visual texture is rich and quirky.

When it comes to directorial debuts – particularly in the case of directors migrating from other artistic disciplines – the worry is always that indulgence will trump good storytelling.

Thankfully, while Maclean sneaks in one prolonged musical interlude – featuring a likeable trio of Cameroonian musician-migrants –a rambling storytelling session by the fire (thankfully, the punch line is worth the wait) and a dream sequence, he also keeps the story trim and effective, so that Silas and Jay’s picaresque journey never actually feels like a drifting ramble with no end in sight.

And although the entire production comes draped with hipster-cred – another ‘revisionist’ Western drawing comparisons to the Coen Bros – its pleasures are entirely traditional. Fassbender’s gruff protagonist – whose monotone drawl delivers occasional narration – is a familiar figure, but the Busiest Actor in Hollywood infuses him with both menace and sympathy – he has no back story and no real motivation, but you somehow buy the transformation he undergoes towards the end.

The plot also clicks satisfyingly into place: we’re privy to important information that Jay isn’t, which adds a layer of suspense as the duo trek along the Colorado plains, with Silas’s former bounty-hunting colleagues – led by Payne (the always on-form Ben Mendelsohn) hot on their trail. 

And though this is something of a coming-of-age story for Jay, the Coen Bros comparison holds when it comes to the trenchantly funny way his dreams are treated: the son of an aristocrat in love with a peasant girl forced to go on the run in the Wild West, the boy is clearly in over his head.

A small, atmospheric triumph whose darkly comic edge is endearing and whose traditional backbone should have wide appeal.

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