Go West, Young Man: A Review of John Maclean’s SLOW WEST

I’m just going to start out by admitting that the trailer for the film I am about to review, Slow West, didn’t exactly have me jumping out of my seat in anticipation. In all honesty, if I hadn’t been assigned this review I more than likely would have ended up in the theater next door watching the free screening of one of my favorite films from the last Lost Weekend, The Connection. Now, that being said, I was pleasantly surprised by this little film and impressed by it’s ability to far exceed my expectations for it.

Slow West is the debut feature from writer/director/musician John Maclean – who just happens to be one of the founding members of a little music group some of you may know, The Beta Band, one of my personal favorites. (Remember the great scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack bets he can sell five copies of the ‘The Three EPs’ by The Beta Band and proceeds to play Dry the Rain? So good. But anyway…) The film takes us back to the American “old west” where we meet young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of a Scottish aristocrat – “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves” – in search of his displaced love Rose Ross (the lovely Caren Pistorius). In his search he happens across the path of the mysterious man of few words Silas (the always awesome Michael Fassbender, aka Frank), who offers his services to protect Jay in his quest from outlaws, bounty hunters and other unsavory kinds, but who also may or may not have an agenda of his own. In their travels together they meet a host of characters in situations ranging from humorous to violent to heart-breaking (personally, I loved the three Congolese musicians singing their song of love. So random…), eventually all converging on the Ross homestead in a bloody and tragic (albeit funny) storm of bullets.

For a relatively short feature film (just shy of 90 mins) Slow West was able to pack a lot of story into a small package while somehow still managing to stay minimal. We get just the bare-bones character development and motivation necessary to tell the story but are still treated to an intriguing and compelling cast of eccentrics. And paradoxically, for a short feature teeming with story and character, Slow West lives up to it’s name. The pacing never felt rushed or hurried. It meandered through the landscape at our hero’s horse’s slow gait from one encounter to the next.

While all the actors did an excellent job in their roles and the writing was able to tell such a simple but compelling and human story, I think the real “star” of the film was Robbie Ryan’s breathtaking cinematography. He was truly able to capture the glory and grandeur of the American west in the tradition of other classic western filmmakers with beautiful wide angle shots peering deep into the landscape and careful, revealing close-ups of our characters.

Although Slow West is able to stand on it’s own merits and was most certainly an enjoyable viewing experience which I’d recommend to anyone looking for something off the beaten path, I don’t think it will make it’s way into any ‘favorites’ lists in my book. And as much as I’ll look forward to seeing more films from Mr. Maclean, I’d really love to hear a new Beta Band album.

His name is Russ.
Go West, Young Man: A Review of John Maclean’s SLOW WEST

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