Film appreciation: Slow West - a Michael Fassbender western

As thoughtful a film of this genre as you can imagine, Slow West is a tale of lost innocence set in late-1800s Colorado

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:06pm

A meandering horse opera set in frontier territory is hardly the sort of killer marketing hook that films seem to require these days.

Indeed, writer-director John Maclean's debut feature is more akin to the films that regularly saw the light of day in the 1970s — with moments of poetry punctuated by acts of extreme brutality.

Compared to Kristian Levring's recent cowboy drama The Salvation — a hyper-stylistic exercise that apes the shoots-outs of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah — Slow West moves at a more gradual pace. Set in Colorado in the late 1800s, it's an elegiac tale of innocence lost seen through the eyes of the 16 year-old protagonist, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

The backstory sees Jay travel to the wilds of Colorado to follow his heart — pursuing a young woman named Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) whom he met back in his homeland in the Scottish Highlands. Uninitiated in the violent ways of the West, Jay is soon in trouble, saved only by the arrival of Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who swiftly becomes his protector, though with other motivations.

Silas isn't the only snake in the undergrowth here. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, travelling the lands in a splendid-looking fur coat, plays Payne, a shadowy, dangerous figure from Silas' past with his finger on the trigger. Maclean proves adept at showing how violence lurks at every turn — notably in a bravura finale that mixes bloodshed with unexpectedly dark humour.

A study in masculinity, growing pains and the havoc such violence wreaked on the American psyche, Slow West is as thoughtful a Western as you could imagine. Beautifully framed by Robbie Ryan, Maclean smartly uses New Zealand to double for Colorado, a location choice that adds to the film's sense of displacement.

The performances are engaging — particularly Fassbender, who tempers his character's quick-draw tendencies with a tender streak; none more so than in a scene where he teaches Jay to shave. But it's Maclean's visual eye that really captivates. Lingering over the landscape, he's crafted a blood-soaked hymn to a bygone era.

Slow West, August 23, 9.45pm, MCL Telford, Kowloon Bay. Part of the Summer International Film Festival