Sundance 2015 Review: Slow West

Filmmaker John Maclean’s debut feature film, Slow West, sees him team up with Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee for a gritty western that shines through a simple premise, inspired aesthetics, and commanding performances.

Young Scotsman, Jay (Smit-McPee), finds himself travelling through the American West on the hunt for his lost love. Aided by cold, cigar-chomping tracker, Silas (Fassbender), the pair must make the hazardous journey across the country – avoiding the perils of the Old West.

Maclean’s screenplay sticks relatively close to traditional western fare: we are presented with a narrative that sees an anti-hero with suspect motivations bonding with a young naive traveller. The simplicity in this premise is one of the strongest assets of Slow West, steeping the tale in a nostalgic energy akin to many a classic western. Maclean does pack several neat twists into his debut – alongside the traditional genre fare of nasty outlaws, Native American Indians, and untrustworthy bounty hunters.

As Silas and Jay make their way across the dangerous lands, Maclean steeps the film in a visceral grit and blood-soaked aesthetic. Action scenes are impressively tense, including a hold-up in a sweat-drenched general store and an unsettled encounter with rival bounty hunters (their leader played by a marvellous Ben Mendelsohn clad in an oversized bear-skin). The most blistering, high-octane visual spectacle is saved for the film’s expertly choreographed shoot-out captured with a grimy haze of dirt, blood, and bullets.

Whilst these spectacles always impress, the well-pitched dynamic between Silas and Jay is one of Slow West’s most engaging assets. Seeing the unlikely pair bond as they tackle the perils of the landscape is consistently engrossing thanks to impressive performances from Fassbender and Smit-McPhee. Fassbender commands the screen with a rag-tag authority as the loveable cigar-chomping anti-hero with an icy cool demeanour. Smit-McPhee is an effortlessly engaging presence that brings a warming naivety to the proceedings – truly holding his own against Fassbender – even when the tracker is clad in distractingly revealing longjohns.

Cinematography from Robbie Ryan soaks each shot in a gritty poignancy – capturing the dichotomy between the landscape’s picturesque beauty and the grim characters that habitate it. Lush green valleys, sandstone canyons, and decaying wooden shacks add to the enigmatic character of the West, ensuring that this is a watch steeped in continual aesthetic significance.

Slow West
is an enthralling ride that packs a real visceral punch. Masterfully performed and atmospherically crafted, Maclean’s debut feels like the most impressive western since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven


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