Slow West

Posted by Joel Copling on July 13, 2015

The late film critic Roger Ebert once famously said that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. Not that I'm trying to be a stand-in for the man who directly influenced me, but I'd like to add a third item to that list: No great movie is too short. Take "Slow West," debuting writer/director John McLean's love letter to the Western that expertly subverts the genre, too, all the while offering an entire universe through the prism of only two main characters and a slim (but more than effective) supporting cast, gorgeous images courtesy of Robbie Ryan's burnished cinematography (which takes more than a cue from greats like Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki), and the year's best score courtesy of Jed Kurzel that becomes as much a character as anything else. And it does this in 84 minutes.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is in love with Rose Ross (Caren Pistorious), and it is after her that he traverses the wilderness of the West, coming upon a scene in which a Native American is being hunted by white men. They almost waste Jay, too, but he's saved by a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who clearly isn't afraid of pulling and using his weapon. The two embark on a journey to find the same person, but of course, Jay is unaware that there has been a bounty placed upon Rose's head. Like gravity pulling the same forces inward, however, an old (Shall we say?) colleague of Silas named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) is also on Rose's trail and for far less empathetic reasons.

This is a movie that understands how to define its characters through simple actions. Jay is an idealist and a lover to whom it is remarkably easy to relate and whose central motivation it is just as easy to understand (Smit-McPhee gives a convincing and terrific performance here), especially after we meet Rose, whose brevity of screen time is sort of undermined by how good Pistorius, a compelling find on McLean's part, is in this role. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, is becoming the latest and greatest screen scumbag, and Payne's delicious vindictiveness is the perfect vessel for that element of Mendelsohn's strengths. Between these two ideals lay Silas, who is not a good man (See the sequence involving Jay's attempts to shave) but isn't unlikable, either, thanks to Fassbender's performance, which keeps the less likable attributes of the character closer to the chest than unexpected glimpses at empathy; it's a very good performance from an actor who has previously played very bad men.

It's a thing of beauty to watch this build to such a forceful climax, but there simply aren't enough praises to be sung: The characters are richly detailed almost entirely through close-ups, the suspense is fever-pitch thanks to expert pacing that almost overwhelms in one scene that explodes in violent catharsis entirely earned and not remotely gratuitous (It involves the heist of a store to which Jay and Silas are witnesses and then unwittingly more), the central motivations of these characters is as poetic and no-nonsense as their dialogue ("There's more to life than surviving," Jay says to Silas, whose response is amusing with a bitter, truthful sting to it), and the final shootout is good enough to earn a spot in the greatest of its kind in any genre. "Slow West" is as stirring a collision of Old West ideology and romanticism as I've seen in a long, long time.

Film Information

Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay Cavendish), Michael Fassbender (Silas Selleck), Caren Pistorious (Rose Ross), Ben Mendelsohn (Payne), Rory McCann (John Ross).

Directed and written by John Maclean.

Rated R (violence, brief language).

84 minutes.

Released in select cities on May 15, 2015.