The cinematic debut is an infamously difficult nut to crack, but ex-Beta Band member turned film-maker John Maclean has shattered every expectation with Slow West, a whimsical Frontier fairytale more to do with love and death than Cowboys and Indians. Wistful, gritty, and unforgettable, it is doubtlessly one of 2014’s finest films, regardless of what The Academy Awards would have you think.
Set in 1870’s Colorado, the story follows a boyish Scottish immigrant named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a noble dreamer tender of face and heart, who is hot on the trail of his unrequited love, Rose. Although Jay has mentally rehearsed exactly how he’ll greet her, the innocent lad is not as well prepared for the journey across the west’s dangerous heartland. His shiny pistol isn’t even loaded when a Confederate runaway tries to rob him at a remote clearing.
Enter Silas Selleck , an opportunistic outlaw who nonchalantly shoots the deserting desperado as a proof of service and offers to “chaperone” Jay to Rose for the easy sum of $100; $50 now, the other half when the job is done. The fact that he’s played by Michael Fassbender, a star whose singular gravitational pull could rearrange the solar system if prompted, makes his charitable offer all the more convincing. Jay, reluctantly accepts.
The first thing to say is that Maclean is as dazzlingly talented a writer as he is a director. He scribes exchanges of abnormal wit and peppers the storytelling with images so mordantly hilarious that I dare not spoil them, except disclose that they provide a pleasingly surreal flavour into a hard-beaten narrative track. Maclean’s screenplay was clearly informed by John Ford’s The Searchers, a rambling masterpiece about journeying cowboys chasing a kidnapped woman, although the detached mood of Slow West owes much to films of slow cinema pioneer Michelangelo Antonioni.
However, this horse opera is never plodding. How could a story which hinges on a double act between Kodi Smit-McPhee, an up and coming everyman, and a leathery Fassbender ever fail to be utterly absorbing ? Both do fiercely compelling work as their partnership of convenience evolves into a warmly fraternal bond, symbolised by a scene where Silas teaches Jay how to shave with a serrated machete.
Despite this wining central relationship, there’s also a pungent scent of death tainting every passing scene. Consider the bleak situation when Silas and Jay catch their breath in a roadside shack. Jay enters a fitting room to try a warmer jacket, and exits shivering as he discovers a bloodstained hole in the breast pocket. Outside, a starving couple stage an unsuccessful hold-up when the shopkeeper produces his shotgun from underneath the counter instead of the till. Jay gasps in horror whilst Silas silently fills his saddlebags. It’s nothing new in the west.
Shot digitally amongst the emerald thickets and honeyed deserts of New Zealand’s elementally diverse wilderness, master cinematographer Robbie Ryan lenses some enchantingly vivid vistas, which glimmer like a dream and have the earthy tactility of an oakwood cabin. His images do not objectively represent a recognisable America as much as demonstrate how the new world must have seem to the dreamers who sought fortune on its hopeful shores, and therein lies their magic.
There a few tonal missteps, particularly a jarringly absurd flashback scene which only seems to exist to showcase Maclean’s storytelling versatility. Never mind. The purpose of a debut is so the film-maker can overcome their initial mistakes next time. Slow West, which would be the centrepiece of a lesser director’s career, is declaration of a bold storyteller. And he’s just getting started.