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New Release Review - SLOW WEST

A bounty hunter protects a young Scotsman on a quest to find the girl he loves, but harbours an ulterior motive.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Maclean

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius


"It sadly won't stick around for long, so forget those so called 'big' summer movies - this deep fried Scottish spaghetti western is one to see on the largest screen possible. Saddle up for the summer's best adventure, and bring coffee and beans."



While Hollywood has turned its back on the western, a genre now unfairly associated with your grandfather, filmmakers from outside the US have been quietly breathing new life into the form. One of the best modern westerns is John Hillcoat's 2005 The Proposition, set in the British colonial Australian outback rather than the Old American West. In recent months we've seen two Argentinian filmmakers appropriate the western and transfer its tropes to their own land in Pablo Fendrik's The Burning and Lisandro Alonso's Jauja. Danish director Kristian Levring gave us a more traditional American-set western in The Salvation, though his film was shot in South Africa and featured a Danish immigrant as its hero.
The writing and directing feature debut of Scottish musician John MacLean, Slow West shares some similarities with Levring's film. The story takes place in Coloroado, but the movie was shot in New Zealand and Scotland, though it certainly had me fooled (after all, few Hollywood westerns were set in California but most were filmed in that State). And again it features a pair of immigrants in its lead roles; in fact, Americans are vastly outnumbered by foreigners here, both in characters and the actors portraying them.
One of these interlopers is Jay (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scot from noble stock, newly arrived in Colorado in search of Rose (South African Caren Pistorius), the working class object of his unwanted affections who fled Scotland with her father when a row with Jay's uncle ended in his murder. Unbeknownst to Jay, his family's influence spreads far and wide, and there's a generous bounty on the heads of Rose and her father.
All too aware of this is bounty hunter Silas (Ireland's Michael Fassbender), who ingratiates himself with Jay after saving the young man from an attack by a trio of rogue soldiers. The pair strike a deal; Silas will protect Jay on his journey in exchange for a generous sum, but of course Silas is simply using the arrangement as a simple way of being led to his prey. Meanwhile, both men are being closely tailed by Silas' former boss, bounty hunter Payne (Aussie Ben Mendelsohn, resembling a human Sasquatch in a giant fur coat).
On the rare occasions when we're presented with a western today, they tend to veer towards the epic in scale. MacLean's film is a more intimate tale, of the sort directors like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made their names with. It's far from a two-hander, however, as Jay and Silas run into a wide array of characters, most of them out to exploit the naive young Scot in some fashion.
Silas mocks Jay for carrying a proto-travel book titled 'Ho! To the West!' - he's seen too much of the West to recommend it - but the movie acts as something of an almanac, providing its own guide to the faces and dangers of the West through the rogues' gallery encountered by its protagonists. Thrilling anecdotes are spun by the film's cameoing characters and illustrated by MacLean's camera. Set pieces that initially seem derivative spark into originality with unexpected punchlines. There's enough material here for several movies, but MacLean packs it all into 84 minutes of a gristle free western steak.
Irish Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, more often found lighting the backstreets of the British Isles, takes full advantage of the New Zealand landscape to create some of the year's most outstanding images, arguably the finest glimpsed in the western genre since the Italians called it a day. The acoustic score by Jed Kurzel feels authentic without ever leaning towards parody, as have some recent western scores. The movie is let down only by the unnecessary voiceover narration provided by Silas, which tells us nothing we can't decipher from the images.
It sadly won't stick around for long, so forget those so called 'big' summer movies - this deep fried Scottish spaghetti western is one to see on the largest screen possible. Saddle up for the summer's best adventure, and bring coffee and beans.



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