Slow West

2015 | UK/New Zealand | Directed by John Maclean

Logline: A young Scottish man has traveled to America to search for the older girl he loves, and is reluctantly befriended by an outlaw who serves as the lad’s protector.

Writer/director Maclean is a Scotsman who shot a black and white short, starring Michael Fassbender, on a mobile phone in 2009. He then made another short which won a Bafta. Slow West is his first feature, and it stars Fassbender, alongside a grown-up Kodi Smit-McPhee. It’s a very accomplished first feature that captures all the right elements of a Western.

Shot in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, doubling for the Mid-West frontier of America, and it serves the landscape well.  It’s an evocative picture, a sombre and reflective piece, perhaps a lost companion story to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Certainly there are many similarities, and the way Maclean’s narrative flows, the self-contained scenes, the study of violence and yearning.

Jay (McPhee) is sweet sixteen. On a horse he rides, naïve of the trouble he is trotting toward. Silas (Fassbender) intercepts the boy, and together they ride across hill and dale. Silas has a hidden agenda, he knows the girl, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father John (Rory McCann) are fugitives, and wanted dead or … dead. Silas keeps the wanted flyer to himself.

Bounty hunters are on their trail, lead by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, sporting a fine fur coat). It won’t be long before they’ve caught up with Jay and Silas, and there’ll be trouble.

There was a period when Westerns were the ciné du jour of Hollywood, but they’re far and few between these days. Slow West is not your average Western, it lingers and meanders, taking inspiration from the masters, such as Leone and Ford, but also carving its own style. Slow West is an Irish and New Zealand co-production, a curious combination for such a genre, I can’t think of any other Westerns that have emerged from those countries.

Slow West reverberates with a curious sense of humour, and a romantic longing. The cast is excellent, and once again Fassbender delivers all the right nuances. How he manages to do period and contemporary films so effortlessly is something rather special. Props to Caren Pistorius, making the smooth transition from television to cinema, who completely fooled me into thinking she was a genuine Scots beauty.  

Slow West will be too languid for some, but it rewards with a suitably violent pay-off, and harnesses an ending that is not quite what you’re expecting, which is always a good thing.


Slow West screens as part of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, Monday 8 June, 6:15pm – Cremorne