Writer-director John Maclean’s first feature film, Slow West, is set in Colorado circa 1870. Although it was actually shot in New Zealand the locations serve convincingly, as do the actors who play the strange assortment of individuals seeking happiness, wealth or merely survival in this godforsaken landscape. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a naive young Scottish aristocrat who has come to America in search of the woman he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius). He blames himself for Rose and her father having had to flee Scotland. Ill-prepared for the violent culture and the harsh conditions, Jay has to toughen up physically and emotionally. Having accepted the guidance and protection offered by cheroot-chomping outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), he witnesses many of the horrors that the West has to offer: the slaughter of the land’s indigenous people, their burnt-out wigwams, the casual gunning-down of strangers. He quickly learns not to trust anyone. Throughout their trek, Jay and Silas are tailed by an outlaw gang led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn sporting a truly amazing bearskin coat), who evidently has a major score to settle with Silas.
What everyone except Jay seems to know is that there is a major bounty posted for the capture of Rose and her father, dead or alive. By the time Silas and Jay are closing in on Rose, their unofficial entourage of bounty hunters has grown. Like Payne’s gang, suave “Angus the Clergyman” (Tony Croft) and “The Kid” (Michael Whalley) are hungry for the monetary reward and the fleeting notoriety it will bring. Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan ensure that the majority of the story is told visually, but Maclean’s economical use of dialogue and voiceover does flesh out the characters’ backgrounds. Jay’s dreams reveal the background events to his quest.
In his screenplay, Maclean makes quite bleak observations about the human condition. However, he also insinuates sufficient wry humour into what we see and hear to keep us engaged throughout. Just as Werner (Andrew Robertt), the writer with whom Jay has an almost surreal encounter, is recording the “violent extermination of the aboriginal people”, Maclean is, to some extent, documenting the violent roots of what is now the most powerful country in the world. His film can also be seen as a clear comment on that country’s contemporary gun culture, engendered by the individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.
This admirable feature debut augurs well for Maclean’s career as a film-maker.