Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in “Slow West”
“Slow West” is the latest subversion of that tried-and-true Hollywood landscape, the western, and it’s a hoot n’ a half. Bringing gallows humor to the normally harsh environs of the genre, first-time filmmaker John MacLean announces himself to the world with panache and then some. Due to a script that’s modest to a fault, that panache doesn’t exactly set the cinematic world on fire, but lucky for him he’s working with a guy who happens to be one of the best actors of this or any generation. Michael Fassbender, Magneto, Macbeth, and the butt of many complimentary penis jokes, walks away with the film as he’s prone to do, displaying the sort of strut, grit, and sweaty charm that’s seldom present in American movie stars.
Exploring a young Scottish kid’s naive, if admirable quest to reach his long-lost “love” across the pond, this dramedy defies its title by taking its time without belaboring the point: there’s more to life than surviving, a motto Kodi McPhee’s character Jay lives by to the end. Fassbender, playing a hard-nosed drifter who agrees to protect this boy for a price, is both physical ally and philosophical foil to his protege. He lives to survive, not save, nor start a ruckus, but the ruckus often starts before he can say “hey.” Silas wishes to eke his way like he always has, but the encroachment of immigrants, aboriginals, and increasing laws is beginning to cramp his style. Perhaps it be time for adapting once again, and that’s what Jay’s wayward companionship offers him, the opportunity to adapt to this ever-changing experiment they call the new world. Meanwhile, McPhee adds a surprising slyness to the requisite naivete his character requires, gelling well with the opposing forces of Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn, who shows up as a wily coyote of an outlaw. Newcomer Caren Pistorius gives it all she’s got in what could have been a thankless role as the object of Jay’s affections, but the damsel in distress is in damaging control when we find her at odds with those forces on her trail. Sure enough, as westerns are want to do, “Slow West” isn’t all lovelorn trek and philosophical talk, it’s also pretty bloody too, and refreshingly not gratuitously so. MacLean’s style seems to borrow from peak Coen Brothers in its manner of blending comedy and carnage seamlessly, treating an arrow through the hand like a buddy movie harrumph. Indeed, the highlights here are when Fassbender and McPhee play off one another’s clashing sensibilities to effectively funny effect.
MacLean’s own script does him a disservice by perhaps not diving enough into these characters before their blustery climax, certainly disappointing all those critics who were waiting to call “Slow West” slow, but depriving the admittedly amorous story of emotional impact. As welcome as it may be to witness a movie that values brevity, something rare these days, this wasn’t the territory for takin’ a quick trip through that old west. The bond between boy and brute could have used some o’ that extra padding we sometimes complain about. Regardless of these qualms, “Slow West” is an impressive debut from an intriguing upstart, and a showcase for the always improving Michael Fassbender.