Dir/scr: John Maclean. UK-New Zealand. 2015. 84mins

Slow West

The American frontier is as bloody as ever in Slow West, John Maclean’s lean and lyrical coming of age story set in 19th century Colorado and filmed in New Zealand. Almost everyone is a killer, or becomes one.  

The film’s violent mannered fatalism shares enough ground with the horror genre that Slow West could tap into a wider public drawn to its young cast and to the hair-trigger fright of a place with no laws and lots of guns.

The fields of neo-westerns and fugitive killers are crowded these days. But Slow West’s New Zealand location is unique, and so is Michael Fassbender in the role of a grizzled gun for hire. With Fassbender and Maclean’s stylish narrative of danger in a grand mysterious landscape, this impressive feature debut can ride into the art houses.

The film’s violent mannered fatalism shares enough ground with the horror genre that Slow West could tap into a wider public drawn to its young cast and to the hair-trigger fright of a place with no laws and lots of guns.

The tale is right out of Western lore.  Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), a well-born Scot of 16 far from home, encounters bounty hunters who just wiped out and burned an Indian village. Before one of them can finish him off, Jay is saved by Silas Selleck (Fassbender), who once rode with murderous gang. Jay, searching for his teenaged Scottish love, signs Silas up to be his protector and the two set off through dazzling landscapes, pursued by bounty hunters who want to cash in on the fugitive girl.

Maclean’s script is an odyssey of the embittered and the naïve as the two wind on horseback through thick forests and broad valleys – locations seen in fantasy films from New Zealand. In the quest to find a loved one before killers do, all signs point to a final gunfight, although we don’t know how many gunfights will precede it.

On the way there, Maclean shifts around the standard ingredients. Women shoot and kill here, and are killed without remorse. The trail that the Jay and Silas travel has landmarks pulled from the horror dictionary, like cow skeletons across their path, or the bloody bullet hole in a suit that Jay tries on in a store.  Irish and Scots on the frontier, plus Germans and Chinese, even Africans singing and drumming, remind us that the West, like the rest of the US, was a land of immigrants.  The music – Maclean was in the Beta Band – is appropriately eclectic.

Fassbender learned to ride a horse competently (graduating from the motorcycle that he rode in his first short with Maclean), but his Irish brogue would have been standard in Colorado of that time.

The dialogue on the journey is minimal, with Jay musing on love and cerebral matters and Silas demolishing any tender thoughts with caustic embitterment. Observing the remains of an Indian, crushed by a fallen tree with a tomahawk still in the corpse’s hands, Jay remarks that Darwin predicted the demise of the weak. Silas, clearly thinking of himself, responds, “I hope that’s not true.”

“There’s much more to life than just survival,” the romantic Jay instructs Silas. “Yeah, there’s dying,” says the hired gun.

Wry observations like that sound like Samuel Becket on the range, but most of Slow West is a bloody gang pursuit, with Fassbender spitting out bile like tobacco juice, and his younger charge catching on slowly. Still a teenager, Smit-Mcphee shows an ever-expanding range.

Cavendish’s love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), has her own coming of age in the wild, shooting to kill when needed.  If the National Rifle Association wanted to exploit one character from gun-happy Slow West for an endorsement, she would be the poster child. Ben Mendelsohn, the tattooed bounty hunter chief, is a monster who reminds you why that profession deserves its bad name.

Maclean and his production designer, Kirsty Cameron, take the look of the film beyond beauty shots by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Forests are as untamed as the characters are. In a serene cream-coloured wheat field, hidden bounty hunters rise up and shoot.  A crude pine cottage in a wide valley, where things end, is ridden with bullets, as if Maclean were saying, “so much for the little house on the prairie.”   

As a sniper shoots at Silas from a great distance (a timely coincidence), the saga, directed by a Scot in New Zealand with ono-American actors, takes us back to American truths. Guns, greed and rugged nature defined the West, setting the New World apart from the old. The roots run deep.  

Production companies, backers: See-Saw Films, DMC Films

International sales: Hanway Films info@hanwayfilms.com

Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Conor McCaughan, Rachel Gardner

Executive Producers: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Butler, Zygi Kamasa

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

Editors: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory

Production designer: Kim Sinclair

Music: Jed Kurzel

Main cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-Mcphee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann