Originality is not a quality regularly associated with the Western genre anymore, mainly because its celebrated canon is adhered to a little too closely by budding directors and writers keen to pay homage to the greats. Which is why Slow West, the debut feature from director John Maclean, is such a pleasant surprise: a Western which manages to bask in the glow of its stately predecessors while maintaining an identity all of its own.
The story, as in many Westerns, is simple: young Scotsman Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is making his way across Colorado (represented by beautiful New Zealand shooting locations) when he meets a drifter by the name of Silas (Michael Fassbender), who offers to keep Jay safe for money. Jay is searching for his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius), but Silas may well have his own reasons for wanting to find her.
Silas impresses upon Jay the dangerous nature of the territory he’s rather naively stumbling into, but Maclean allows his film to meander along at an unhurried pace, refreshingly choosing to eschew the traditional ‘dangers’ we might see in Westerns in favour of chance, almost whimsical, meetings with idiosyncratic individuals and situations. In traditional Western fashion, it all ends with a shootout, but even then it’s one full of twists and surprises.
And black comedy. Indeed, the darkly humorous edge of Maclean’s film is part of its individuality, and the director relishes in subverting what we might be expecting. There are even one or two moments of outright slapstick – unexpected but oddly fitting in Maclean’s version of the Old West.
If the film is little light in terms of character development or emotional depth, it’s not to any great detriment. The characters work, the landscapes are shot beautifully and there’s a lovely soundtrack accompanying the action. Whe n the action breaks out, Maclean has a keen grip on that, too. This quirky, confident Western belies the fact it is the director’s first feature, and marks him out as one to watch.