As its name would suggest, Slow West is a slow-burning love affair that fills out all of its 84 minutes of film. It unfolds gorgeously, part of the vibrancy coming from the Colorado landscape which was actually shot in New Zealand and most of it from the skillful hands of cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who is also responsible for the stunning light and shadows of Fish Tank). This fairy-tale-like western follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has journeyed from Scotland in search of a woman he loves. Armed with only a compass to take him further and further west, the civilization around him and his youth disintegrate like the European clothes on his back after he meets a taciturn outlaw who agrees to guide him to his destination.
This is John Maclean's first full-length film outing as a director and writer. He shows inexperience as a writer at times with the basic storyline, but if there's any evidence that he has little heft as a director it's only exemplified in how fresh and varied his camerawork is. There are enough shots, angles, and framing choices to make this a work of art. I'm sure he has great rapport from his chair as well, but he honestly didn't need very much with the cast he had. Kodi Smit-McPhee is on point as a wide-eyed innocent who lets his heart lead him as much as his compass. The drifter Silas is played by Michael Fassbender, who honestly gives more to the role than vice versa. Strong performances as well from Caren Pistorius, who plays the object of Jay's affection, and Ben Mendelsohn, an outlaw leader from Silas' past. Each actor/actress displays a world of depth in their acting that went beyond what the script gave them.
Maclean's parable is a fascinating mix of harshness and reality, attempting to enforce the brutality of the new west while allowing us to wonder at it through Jay's naive eyes. Indeed, his handling of the material is analogous to the juxtaposition of the awe-inspired Jay with the experienced hard-edged Silas. As unsparing as the violence is, Slow West is really about the beauty of it, making even a scene of slaughter into an artistic ballet with killers hiding in fields of rippling, golden wheat. Slow West is more of a mythical quest than a traditional western, and sometimes the balance between its attempts for abrupt realism and unconventional charm are clumsy, but there's undeniably a compelling draw to stay with the characters.
I had initially thought that the cast was really what elevated the story, but the spotlight is really on the west itself. Whatever the skills of the actors, it's really the visuals that set Slow West apart, make it memorable, and make the audience feel inherently that they have just watched something of great value.