‘Kill that house!’ A man draped in furs stands in the middle of an endless wheat field and commands his ragtag posse of killers to lay waste to the only home in sight. What follows is one of the greatest shoot-outs this side of Sergio Leone, violently punctuating a fable about a place so preoccupied with survival that no one in it can afford to take a hand off their holster.
An angular Western that takes the idea of the fading promise of the New World and sublimates it into a fairy tale of unrequited love, ‘Slow West’ starts with ‘once upon a time’ and ends with a crackle of incredible savagery. Narrated by a cynical Irish bounty hunter called Silas (Michael Fassbender, excellent), the film tells of a 16-year-old boy, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s sailed across the ocean from Scotland in search of his sweetheart, Rose. Naive Jay is described as a ‘jackrabbit in a den of wolves’ – he might be the only person west of the Mississippi unaware that Rose has a massive bounty on her head. But Silas knows the score when he offers to escort Jay through Colorado. Meanwhile, a gang of unsympathetic vultures has picked up the scent.
Like any good Western, ‘Slow West’ percolates with the constant threat of violence, but debuting feature director John Maclean wrings the genre for its mythic value. Everything in his film is touched by the daydream delusions of its hero, especially Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous cinematography, glazing a brutal chapter of American history with the elusive innocence of young love. Jay and Silas never make the most of their tragicomic team potential – running a terse 84 minutes, the movie never gives them the chance – but their brief adventure leaves a lasting impression.