ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

In 1870, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is crossing through Colorado Territory and heading west so that he can be reunited with his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Finding the task daunting on his own, Jay meets outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) who’s willing to help the young man for a price. While on their journey, the two find themselves facing many obstacles, one of whom is Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), Silas’s former employer who’s following after them.

Featuring characters you’d normally see in a Coen brothers film and a backdrop fitting for Wes Anderson, Slow West manages to work as both an anti-Western and a straight up Western. Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker John Maclean (formerly the keyboardist and sampler of The Beta Band), in his feature-film debut, infuses his film with a wicked sense of absurdist black humor and foreigner’s perspective of the Wild West (shot in New Zealand, directed by a Scot and starring a German and two Australians in key roles) not commonly found in the genre, but takes inspiration from many of the greats out of the Golden Age of Hollywood by keeping the film’s narrative of love and betrayal short, sweet and to the point, leading to – of course – a climactic shootout.

Though “slow” is in the title, there’s nothing slow about this film at all. Maclean lets the journey take its time leading up to the final showdown, but it never dawdles as he fills his tale with enough colorful characters, dialogue that says more in just two words than a book-sized speech and absorbing, picturesque photography that holds our attention through it all.

Unlike many Westerns, particularly the Spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, this exchanges the typically bleak and gritty backdrop for one that is vibrant and high contrast. The genre’s nature of the environment hasn’t changed here. It’s ruthless enough to devour you alive, and the characters that inhabit it are even worse (there’s a tense showdown in a general store that would make Sergio Leone proud), but the beautifully shot cinematography by Robbie Ryan mixes with the stark, darkly humorous tone in an effectively off-kilter way.

Though he may not be as iconic as what Clint Eastwood was to the genre, Michael Fassbender has the same calm, cool and stoic presence that Eastwood evoked so well, and there’s a natural relationship that grows between him and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Smit-McPhee blends Jay’s determination with a youthful inexperience and timidity which hints that his dogged quest to reunite with his long-lost love may be nothing may than childlike, naive pipe-dreaming.

Maclean also makes great use of a talented supporting cast. Invaluable character actor Ben Mendelsohn, dressed in a gaudy fur coat that would make even Liberace jealous (just try to call his character out on it, though), shows up in only a few scenes, but is far from underused, developing a strong enough sense of past and history between his and Fassbender’s outlaws in the short amount of time he has to do so.

Slow West is a thoroughly engaging, atmospheric Western that’s bolstered by John Maclean’s solid debut direction, breathtaking cinematography and a great cast led by Michael Fassbender, who continues to solidify his status as a formidable leading man. While not as brutal as Django Unchained or as sweepingly epic as Sergio Leone or John Ford’s work, this is still a lean and mean little film that provides a fresh spin on the genre’s old formula while paying homage to it as well.

I give Slow West an A- (★★★½).

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