'Slow West': Sundance Review

Slow West Still - H 2014
Courtesy of See-Saw Films

Slow West Still - H 2014

A pitch-perfect debut from musician-turned-filmmaker John Maclean

Michael Fassbender plays gruff bodyguard on Kodi Smit-McPhee's odyssey through the West

A wholly enjoyable buddy Western punctuated by occasional shocks of black humor, John Maclean's's Slow West follows a wide-eyed Scottish boy as he attempts to find the girl he loves in the Civil War-era American West. A love of the genre is evident throughout the British/Kiwi production, in which New Zealand locations stand in for a United States where nearly everybody's a recent arrival. Chief among the immigrants is Michael Fassbender, whose reliable charisma carries the day and should ensure a healthy audience for what might otherwise be a hard sell.

Fassbender plays Silas Selleck, an outlaw who crosses paths with Kodi Smit-McPhee's wet-behind-the-ears Jay Cavendish and offers to help him survive his cross-country quest for a price. The well-timed proposition comes just as Jay witnesses his first bit of violence; he may think the man a brute, but he can hardly afford to turn Silas down. Jay doesn't know it, but time's of the essence: A bounty has been put on the head of his girl Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann), and tough characters from all parts are picking up their scent.

While the mismatched travelers navigate encounters just unpredictable enough to keep us on our toes, Jay's campfire reveries flash back to Scotland, revealing Rose's charm while hinting at difficulties he may have if and when he finds her. Though we're watching Jay's own memories, he doesn't seem to see them as clearly as we do — a sure sign that it's love. In the here and now, Jay sharpens up to an extent but can't seem to process fully the merciless laws governing this new land.

Maclean's screenplay is unshowy but keen: In voiceover, Silas describes the naive youth as "a jackrabbit in a den of wolves, fortunate to be alive"; elsewhere, an anthropologist who foresees the extinction of Native Americans muses "In a short time, this will be a long time ago." Fassbender, who acted in Maclean's two previous short films (as a member of The Beta Band, he also made some of their videos), is eloquent when speaking to us in narration but taciturn with his trailmate: If it were up to him, a day's talk might consist solely of the "Let's drift" that gets the riding started.

DP Robbie Ryan, who'll be remembered here for his work on Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, does a commendable job photographing vistas not of the Monument Valley but the snow-capped-peaks variety; one sequence, composing blue sky against yellow grain and whack-a-mole outbursts of violence, leaps out immediately as a scene likely to remain in the mind's eye for some time. Meanwhile Jed Kurzel's score, full of plucked strings, sets the right tone for a movie that can't be counted on to remain light-hearted but has no interest in grandeur or melodrama — and is even willing to skewer its most poignant moment with a visual joke that, despite ourselves, we laugh at without mercy.

Production companies: See-Saw Films, DMC Film

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

Director-Screenwriter: John Maclean

Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Conor McCaughan, Rachel Gardner

Executive producers: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Butler, Zygi Kamasa

Director of photography: Robbie Ryan

Production designer: Kim Sinclair

Costume designer: Kirsty Cameron

Editors: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory

Music: Jed Kurzel

No rating, 83 minutes