Slow West


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Set at the end of the 19th century, 16-year-old Jay Cavendish journeys across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves. He is joined by Silas, a mysterious traveler, and hotly pursued by an outlaw along the way.
"Maclean shows a land where loss of innocence is ever-present." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Former Beta Band member John Maclean proves his BAFTA-winning Pitch Black Heist was just the beginning with this distinctive Western yarn that's part boy's own adventure, part fable and part buddy comedy. Set in 1870, it's a time when American settlers - mostly European - were heading West, the film follows lovelorn Scot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he heads to the New World in search of a lost love. Sixteen-year-old Jay is an innocent abroad - unsuspecting that the dangers ahead lie far beyond the confines of his travel guide and unaware that their is a bounty on the head of his love Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her dad (Rory McCann).

By chance, he falls in with outlaw Silas Selleck (Maclean's long-time collaborator and supporter Michael Fassbender), who offers to help Jay find his girl, providing the price is right. But, with a reward beckoning for Rose's capture, it isn't just Jay who is interested in finding her.

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Maclean's film is marked out by contrasts. The landscape travelled by Jay and Silas has a mythic sweep, shifting from dusty vistas to forests and golden fields of crops - all starkly different to the Scotland imagined in Jay's romanticised flashbacks, where earthy browns and glowing candles in the night are the dominant force. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan - who has always been good but who still manages to be more impressive with every film - shoots in a way that captures the natural feel for the environment while retaining a slightly alien, dislocated edge. And there is conflict in the narrative too, so that we can see clearly how the land lies between Jay and Rose, even if he cannot. Additional friction is supplied by Ben Mendelsohn, as absinthe-drinking outlaw Payne, his enormous bear-like coat part comedic, part unsettling, as is his relationship with Silas. Even Silas himself is placed in conflict, caught between protector and predator.

Maclean shows a land where loss of innocence is ever-present - an image rendered particularly poignantly during a shoot out in a supply store that comes with a tragic sting in the tail - his black humour often emphasising the brutality of life in the wilderness. Jay may be the epitome of a lamb in a den of wolves but this is a landscape where the dangerous outnumber the innocent. The writer/director invites us to laugh at the harshness of life in a way that becomes a trap, causing us to question or readiness to find humour in misfortune when we consider the full bleakness of the picture. This is comedy coated in tragedy, as sharp as salt in a wound.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2015
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A Scotsman heads to the american West in search of his lost love.
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Director: John Maclean

Writer: John Maclean

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann, Jeffrey Thomas, Brooke Williams, Stuart Martin, Madeleine Sami, Caren Pistorius, Kalani Queypo, Michael Whalley, Erroll Shand, Tawanda Manyimo, Stuart Bowman, Edwin Wright

Year: 2015

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: New Zealand

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