ONCE upon a time, Jay Cavendish travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love.
So begins the story of Slow West, the first offering from newly fledged Scottish director Jon Maclean.
A darkly comic feature starring young Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee alongside Michael Fassbender, Slow West is a road trip through a soup of lawlessness, hope, and exploitation that makes up the burgeoning United States of America.
Jay (Smit-McPhee) is a wide-eyed, loved-up 16-year-old Scottish laird who heads west in pursuit of his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius), who was forced to flee the Caledonian highlands when her best-laid plans went awry.
His blunderings lead him to cross paths with the world-weary bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Fassbender), whose conflicting impulses of tenderness and profiteering lead him to chaperone the lost boy on his journey.
It is a time-honoured odd-couple pairing, and filmed in the widescreen format that was popular in the 1950s, but don’t expect to find too many Wild West conventions.
From the moment the fairy tale narration guides us to a scene of Jay staring into the night sky and illuminating constellations with imaginary blasts from his pistol, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a singular vision of the American frontier.
Filmed exclusively in New Zealand, Maclean’s world zings with vibrant colours – lime-green grasses and emerald forests sit under an endless azure sky, but stunning as it is, Maclean never lingers on the scenery.
Instead, our focus is kept in close to the characters, who in contrast to the vibrant landscape comprise ornate and interwoven shades of grey.
Jay is the quintessential dandy, left alone and aloof in a world that he is no way prepared for.
Smit-McPhee is excellent in this role, exuding all the kind of innocence and infatuation that comes with first love.
While on paper the character appears tirelessly optimistic in his search for love, Smit-McPhee is able to find the depth beneath that, and tap into some of the feelings of desperation and detachment that are part and parcel of being a hopeless romantic.
Silas, on the other hand, is far more utilitarian in his outlook – justifying the end by whatever means are necessary – and, as a bounty hunter, the end in question is usually a hefty payload.
While Jay is ignorant of it, Silas is very aware that Rose and her father (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann) have a reward on their heads.
Silas is a moral mobius strip, existing in a world where the line between right and wrong has not yet been drawn.
Fassbender, who previously appeared in two of Maclean’s short films, clearly enjoys a good working relationship with the director, and is able to skilfully walk that undrawn line while embodying the same off-kilter feel that Maclean has woven throughout the film.
Once Silas’s associates (a gang headed by the brilliantly evil Ben Mendelsohn) learn of his situation, they become all too keen to lend a hand in the proceedings.
Full of dark comedy, bloody violence, existentialist musings, and absurd music, there are touches of the Cohen brothers and Tom Stoppard throughout, but Maclean manages to create something of his own with Slow West, which despite the title, plays out in a very snappy 86 minutes.
The end result is an entertaining clash of poetry and pragmatism set against a backdrop of hope and bloodshed.
Slow West is an engrossing, funny, and incredibly stylish film that showcases clever writing, great acting, and a singular and fresh vision of the American West.