Film Review: Slow West
Gents, when it comes to a genre of film, few manage to pack in as many guns, horse and masculinity as a Western. One of the original Hollywood staples, the westerns brought gents like Bronson, Eastwood and Wayne to the silver screen and defined the notion of manliness to a generation. Whilst the Western may have fallen behind in blockbuster popularity, Slow West may just be the film to revive the genre. Our resident movie expert Popcorn Heart – also known as Gemma Hurst – lets you know if the flick is good, bad or just plain ugly.
By Gemma Hurst
The Western genre. What are the first images you immediately think of? Perhaps you conjure up John Wayne bleating on about dismounting an equine animal and consuming a dairy beverage. Perhaps it’s the empty desert space of land that’s convenient for a bathroom break on a long trip. Perhaps it’s the archetype aesthetic of a mysterious and quiet drifter who wouldn’t say no to a shower and shave. And often a slow, slow story follows it. You could say the Western genre could do with a jump start to get the engine purring again, like Garfield after a hefty slice of lasagne.
Part of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse’s second birthday festivities included an early viewing of Western thriller Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi SmitMcPhee. Could this be the film to revive this style of storytelling?
You betcha bottom dollar it is.
The film follows young Scottish whippersnapper Jay (SmitMcPhee) who treks across America to get to the girl he is hopelessly in love with; Rose (Caren Pistorius). However, he crosses paths with the mysterious outlaw Silas (Fassbender), who offers assistance in finding Jay’s object of affection (but all for personal financial gain). We learn that Rose, along with her father John (Rory McCann), are wanted dead or alive with a substantial bounty on their capture. And it seems Silas is not the only one who knows of this possible cash windfall… cue awkward reunion with Silas’ former gang and an epic race against time.
Firstly, I will hold my hands up and say I am not a Western fan. I often find these style of films a bit dull and drawn out. However, John Maclean’s directorial debut seems a breath of fresh air for the genre. At 84 minutes, it is a short film in comparison to what is currently out on the big screens however my goodness, it’s an incredible start for what looks to be a promising career for Maclean. The film has a beauty that is hypnotic to behold - it comes as no surprise that the backdrop for the Western environment was actually shot in New Zealand (responsible for visually appetising films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit series and Avatar). However the scenery sweeps you into another time where wagons were the norm and guns were as frequent as PPI calls. The aesthetics add so much gravitas to the story, but it does not rely on style over substance. This is where the two leads step in.
Fassbender is undoubtedly a tour de force as an actor. He commands every scene as the reluctant representation of a father figure to Jay and as the story progresses, we see him unravel as a stranger whose conscience is always tapping him on the shoulder to do the right thing. Stepping out of the larger shadow of previous roles such as meglomaniac Magneto in the X-Men movies and droid David in Prometheus, I have always been a fan of his lesser known character portrayal. Watching him as Silas gave me the same excitement whilst watching Shame (2011), Fish Tank (2009) and Hunger (2008) - a star power that would grow brighter than a retina-burning solar eclipse.
Let’s not forget SmitMcPhee - a gent who is clearly going to have a very rich career in film. As the wide-eyed youngster who let’s his heart rule his journey, it’s hard not to support his goal of eventually winning the heart of Rose. The adolescent charm not only wins Silas but also the audience, hence the ending is certainly something that will resonate with you (no spoilers here, folks! You must watch it for yourself to see what I’m blithering on about). The level of maturity he displays is admirable and charming - I do hope viewers leave their seats remembering his performance as this as well as the obvious turn of Fassbender.
What Western would be complete without an obligatory bad guy? Thankfully, Slow West has invested wisely in the imposing bearcoat wearing Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). A frightening presence who instills fear with steel-piercing eyes capable of denting Optimus Prime; the character is like a domineering train careering towards the bloody finale and that is worth the ticket fee alone. In fact, there really is no weak link in this movie chain. A fine selection of actors to feast on (including a turn of role from Rory McCann, usually playing Arya-bothering The Hound in Game of Thrones).
What I really love about this film is the use of flashbacks to tell the tale of how Jay came about his expedition. I guess this leads to the theme of everything unfurling before your eyes - you can link this with the development of Silas as a person; you can link it with a particular tense scene involving a quick stop at an 1800s style corner shop (where latest fashions are adorned with a violent background); you can link it with the incredible climatic conclusion. Add a sublime, non-traditional musical score, bursts of unexpected violence, an increasing body count, quirky visual metaphors and sharp humour scattered throughout and voila - a not-to-be-missed film which is already in my top 3 films of 2015.
Slow West is showing at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse throughout July; visit the website to find out times.
To find out everything there is to know about films, visit Popcorn Heart’s website.