Wednesday, June 24, 2015

'Slow West' (2015) directed by John MacLean

The psychedelic Western ranks highly in my obscure film genre top ten. In these rare films, agoraphobia inducing scenery stands for the spiritual infinite, and combined with antisocial (usually bearded) men-on-the-edge, usually makes for enjoyably bonkers cinema. Jodorowsky's inestimably grand El Topo is king of the genre and bubbling under are its buddies Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the recent Jauja and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (to name but a few). Slow West can stand proudly alongside them.

The directorial debut of former Beta Band member John MacLean, Slow West is a classic hero's quest. The teenage Jay (Kodi Smith-McPhee) is travelling through the 1870s American wilderness in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). It's his fault that she and her father had to escape from their native Scotland, but with a romantic heart and charming naivety he's braving mile after dangerous mile to track her down. 

Unbeknownst to him he's not alone in his pursuit. Both Rose and her father's faces peer from wanted posters across the west, attracting the attention of a gaggle of disreputable bounty hunters. Prime among them is Silas (Michael Fassbender), a rough and tumble Han-Solo-a-like who figures Jay's is his best bet to find them. So he befriends the young Scot, gives him advice on life beneath the stars and guides/follows him towards their mutual goal - never letting on that while Jay is seeking love, Silas is seeking blood.

This sets the stage for a picaresque road western in which the unlikely pair encounter weird characters, along with generous doses of peril, intrigue and danger. By way of an example; our naifish hero meets a trio of Congolese musicians in the middle of nowhere and they exchange philosophical pleasantries on love and life in perfect French, or befriends a suspiciously Werner Herzoggy Bavarian ethnographer, or has a tense confrontation with Native Americans that unexpectedly devolves into slapstick. It might sound a bit twee on paper, but the intention is to contrast mannered symbolism with grubby realpolitik.

Perhaps the closest thematic companion is the above mentioned Dead Man. There, Johnny Depp's innocent 'William Blake' wandered aimlessly through a monochrome landscape, encountering cowboys played by the likes of Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover and Billy Bob Thornton. But where Dead Man shows us how the environment causes the slow disintegration of its heroes psyche, Slow West shows a more submissive landscape. This is, after all, entirely appropriate - we did indeed tame the Wild West - mystical forests "from which no man returns" now strip malls and McDonalds.

This is conveyed in long, intoxicatingly beautiful shots. McLean increasingly emphasises the blue of the sky and the fluffiness of the clouds against dull earth tones, with the contrast increasing the more we progress through the film. The zenith is a goddamn beautiful shoot out set in and around a house in the middle of a corn field. The house is new, white wood, the sky is blue, the corn is a lush yellow - all spattered by gobs of thick crimson blood. 

There's time enough for the small things too. Use of tilt shift focus contributes to a hallucinatory effect, often combined with surreal imagery. In the most memorable shots, our hero examines an apparently gigantic mushroom, and later we slowly zoom in on ants swarming around the barrel of a lost revolver (apparently quoting the opening sequence of Lynch's Blue Velvet). 

Upon all that sits two marvellous performances by Smit-McPhee and Fassbender. Though each individually impresses, it's when they bounce off one another that they really shine. These interactions are filled with nuance; secret smiles when Jay devises a solution to a problem that impresses Silas; or the myriad ways in which the actors convey their growing trust in one another. Also, and it somewhat goes without saying, but Fassbender looks cool as hell as a cowboy, obviously relishing playing a windbitten, rough-edged outlaw.

The title doesn't lie. Slow West in no particular hurry to get to its conclusion, happy to settle for being gently lyrical rather than propulsive. Though not without the occasional hard edge, it stands out as a curiously optimistic Western, one in which (for once) kindness stands a chance of triumphing over bloody amorality. An excellent directorial debut.


Slow West is on general release from 26 June.

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