“Love is universal, like death.”
Those words, spoken in French by young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee near the beginning of Slow West sum up the film entirely, though you may not realise it until the final moments before the credits roll. The revisionist Western is a small but devastating film, full of finely drawn characters, powerful irony and a haunting, slightly surreal evocation of America in its youth.
Set at the end of the 19th Century, the film depicts frontier America as a truly strange place, where law and order had very little meaning. Like other revisionist westerns such as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) or Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), in the vast, uncivilised spaces of the old west, strength is the law. Even in the film's lightest moments, death and danger are never far away.
Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) is deep in this wilderness when the film begins, having come to America from his home to find his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius) who left with her father after a tragic accident. Jay meets quiet and stoic outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender) and the two join up on the condition that Jay will pay Silas to deliver him to safety. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Silas has his own reasons to find Rose and her father.
Writer and first time director John Maclean is joined by a wonderfully talented cast and crew. His screenplay, which has a very terse and tense feel inspired by European (particularly French) cinema, is brought to life by the cast. Australian Ben Mendelsohn in particular has a brief but very important role as the bounty hunter Payne that he plays to perfection, from his body language to his accent.
Kodi Smit-McPhee has a delicate and boyish appearance, but he perfectly captures Jay’s remarkable strength of spirit that allows him to survive his journey despite his complete lack of survival skills. The film is brutal and often very violent, but it balances its darker moments with humour - particularly in the interplay between Jay and the gruff, but caring Silas - that always feels natural and never as if it has been shoehorned in.
The film is, for the most part, slow-moving, somewhat languid, but never static, thanks to the interplay between the characters and the technical aspects of the film. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s visuals are beautifully composed, framing actors beautifully in vast, natural spaces while still managing to avoid appearing needlessly contrived. Even the film's climactic shootout is rigidly choreographed, but not distractingly so.
Slow West essentially builds two stories in tandem, showing both Jay’s journey with Silas in America alongside the events that led to his departure from Scotland. The film uses subtle but very effective tricks, such as cuts that match or juxtapose action and Jed Kurzel's score, based around two or three themes for nylon guitar and a sprightly string section, to create an immediate connection and keep the film’s emotional core in sharp focus. Despite all this complexity, however, at less than 85 minutes in length, there is not a wasted moment in this eloquent and absorbing film.
It’s truly amazing that a genre as old and mired in tropes as the Western can still deliver something this original and enthralling. Slow West is idiosyncratic and unusual, but it is still an extremely accessible work. It does not come across as a formal exercise in genre revisionism, but as a timeless story told with passion and care.
Slow West opens in cinemas across Australia on June 4. It is also showing as part of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival.