Back to the OK Corral: Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee (right) star in Slow West.
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New indie western Slow West is filled with resonant emotions

The Beta Band's John Maclean makes his directorial debut with a wry, rootsy love story.

Slow West (15)
dir: John Maclean

In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, John Cusack calmly announces to his colleagues at a Chicago record shop that he will sell five copies of the album The Three EPs by the Beta Band. He then proceeds to play their song “Dry the Rain” over the shop’s speakers and to make good on his prediction. This formerly revered Scottish band, which broke up in 2004, is rarely spoken of these days, but at least one member, John Maclean, is doing fine. Slow West, his debut as a writer-director, is every bit as wry, rootsy and idiosyncratic as anything the Beta Band recorded.

It charts the journey of the lovestruck 16-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from Scotland to Colorado in the 19th century. He is looking for Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled the country with her father under circumstances best described as messy. Jay, who doesn’t know there is a price on his beloved’s head, is certain that he and Rose have a blissful future ahead. He is, it must be said, ill prepared for the ravages of the frontier. He has in his favour only optimism, a copy of Ho! For the West (a kind of 1850s Lonely Planet guide) and a gun. The gun turns out not to work, so forget about it.

Silas (Michael Fassbender) happens upon the young romantic being held at gunpoint by a bounty hunter. Killing the miscreant and reasoning that there are others loose in the immediate vicinity, he offers to provide safe passage for Jay to Colorado. Safe-ish. This is a heartless land, where parents turn to banditry in front of their children. Enter a general store and the owner will demand that you lay your guns on the counter before browsing. You don’t get that at TK Maxx.

The dynamic between Silas and Jay is familiar not only from other westerns (Ride the High Country, Unforgiven) but from buddy movies in general, where gnarled veterans tutor naifs in the ways of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice for once if it were the other way round? Slow West heads in that less-travelled direction. When Jay tells Silas that he knows why the older man needs his help, there is a pregnant pause. “Oh yeah?” Silas replies, thinking Jay has realised that he was mulling over the bounty on Rose. After all, $2,000 could buy a lot at the general store. But no. Jay believes Silas needs him because he is lonely.

He could be right. Silas is verbose in his narration: “The way I saw it, you knock over a rock and most likely a desperado with a knife would crawl out and . . .” Yeah, yeah, yada-yada. In conversation, he is frugal in a way that suggests too long spent on his tod. When Jay argues that there’s more to life than simply surviving, Silas responds with some matchstick philosophy: “That’s right. There’s dying.” The film shows visually how Jay alters his companion’s outlook. One low-angle shot makes mushrooms sprouting from the ground appear to be bigger than the men inspecting them. This is Jay’s world, full of wonder and weirdness.

Few actors could embody those qualities better than Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose enormous, soulful eyes sit far apart on his face like ET’s. This young man is an old hand at the hazardous ramble, having undertaken at the age of 13 a post-apocalyptic trek in The Road.

Slow West is no walk in the park, either. Silas, whom Fassbender helped shape with Maclean over a number of years, is like an antidote to the sadism that the same actor displayed in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. But there’s not much he can do against a Native American with a bow and arrow, or a mercenary played by Ben Mendelsohn from Animal Kingdom. No one ever said “phew” when they saw Ben Mendelsohn. He’s bad news on legs.

The film is small in scale but filled with resonant ideas and emotions. Maclean’s style is heightened (as shot by Robbie Ryan, the colours sing) and peppered with witty visual puns on phrases like “butter wouldn’t melt” and “pouring salt on a wound”. The film also helpfully answers such questions as, “How did cowboys dry their clothes?” and it includes one scene, showing Silas protecting Jay from UV rays by rubbing silver birch bark against his face, that could really hurt sun lotion sales this summer if word gets around.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Why a Keeping Up with the Kardashians cartoon would make genuinely brilliant TV

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists.

You’ve seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take Kyoto, and Kylie and Kendall Klarify Kommunications Kontracts, but the latest Kardashian show might take a step away from reality. Yes, Kartoon Kardashians could be on the way. According to TMZ, an animated cartoon is the next Kardashian television property we can expect: the gossip website reports that Kris Jenner saw Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. production company earlier this month for a pitch meeting.

It’s easy to imagine the dramas the animated counterparts of the Kardashians might have: arguments over who gets the last clear plastic salad bowl? Moral dilemmas over whether or not to wear something other than Balenciaga to a high profile fashion event? Outrage over the perceived betrayals committed by their artisanal baker?

If this gives you déjà vu, it might be because of a video that went viral over a year ago made using The Sims: a blisteringly accurate parody of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that sees the three sisters have a melodramatic argument about soda.

It’s hysterical because it clings onto the characteristics of the show: scenes opening with utter banalities, sudden dramatic music coinciding with close-ups of each family member’s expressions, a bizarre number of shots of people who aren’t speaking, present tense confessionals, Kim’s ability to do an emotional 0-60, and Kourtney’s monotonous delivery.

But if the Kardashians, both as a reality TV show and celebrity figures, are ripe for ridicule, no one is more aware of it than the family themselves. They’ve shared teasing memes and posted their own self-referential jokes on their social channels, while Kim’s Kimoji app turned mocking viral pictures into self-depreciating in-jokes for her fans. And the show itself has a level of self-awareness often misinterpreted as earnestness - how else could this moment of pure cinema have made it to screen?

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists, and they’ve perfected the art of making fun of themselves before anyone else can. So there’s a good chance that this new cartoon won’t be a million miles away from “Soda Drama”. It might even be brilliant.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.