Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay Cavendish, a naïve, starry-eyed 16-year-old, who sets off on a laborious trek across the unforgiving American landscape to be reunited his his lover, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). However little does he know, but she has a handsome bounty on her head, and it seems he isn’t the only person travelling to her abode, as he attracts a series of hunters who use the youngster as a means of finding their target. One of which is the elusive wanderer, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender).
You do wonder how a first-time filmmaker such as Maclean could tempt in arguably the world’s most sought-after actor in Fassbender, and in this instance, it’s glaringly obvious; the screenplay. The opening line, “Once upon a time, Jay Cavendish travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of American to find his love – a jackrabbit in a den of wolves” proves right away that here’s a a filmmaker with talent, as there’s a poetry to his words, and yet it never veers too far from realism. The endearingly simplistic narrative helps too, and it’s what allows this picture to be compared to the classic westerns of old like The Searchers; one straightforward journey that throws up a few surprises along the way.
But that’s about as far as Macleans affectionate nod towards the conventional western goes, as a director who has an inclination to be unique and move away from the tropes of the genre at hand. In the opening sequence, where Jay is lying on his back, looking up at the stars, he lights three of them up with his fingertips, and suddenly the director’s vision and intentions are clear, implementing a fairy-tale, fantastical element into an otherwise naturalistic tale about love. Reminiscent of the “don’t be a square” sequence in Pulp Fiction.
Compelling, indelible, emotionally rich and with quite remarkable pacing – Slow West marks a mightily fine debut for Maclean, that should point towards a prosperous career in cinema. Of course it helps tremendously when you have such a cast on board, as not only is the Fass starring (worked wonders for Steve McQueen, too), but there’s also a role for the consistently beguiling Ben Mendelsohn who plays the villainous, unhinged Payne.
It’s always a pleasure to see the Australian illuminate the screen, and it appears in this instance that he may have picked out a coat from the same charity shop that Matt Smith chose his for his role in Lost River. Which also happens to be a feature starring Mendelsohn, made by a first-time filmmaker. But the difference is, it’s nowhere near as accomplished as this impressive outing.