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25 June 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:10pm

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.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.