Some films hit you fast, like a bullet, while others come on like a shot of good whisky, warming you slowly, leaving a burning, smoky aftertaste. Such is the way with Slow West from 2015, starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn.
This deliberately paced, slow burn film, the quirky debut feature from director John Mclean (who writes and directs here), takes us on an episodic journey from a beach in Scotland across the plains of the American frontier, with events leading to an inevitable and brutal confrontation across a wheat field with a widescreen sky.
Smit-McPhee plays a young pilgrim travelling westward to find his lost love, and finds himself in the company of loner Fassbender, their fates more intertwined than the boy suspects, a fact made more complicated as their journey sees them both learning to rely on and like each other.
Beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan, Slow West has the feel of some of the great films from the 1970s, a hint of Terrence Malick’s poetry with a dose of the hopelessness of Monte Hellman’s Ride in The Whirlwind. We know for certain things are not going to end well for one or more of these characters, particularly when Ben Mendelshon’s greasy, fur coat bundled bounty hunter arrives to complicate things further.
Fassbender is exceptional value as always, bringing a likeable unpredictability to his role and Smit-McPhee and Mendelsohn compliment both him and each other well. The excellent casting goes a long way to filling out the slight characters.
A feeling of melancholy runs through the film like a deep cut, as the journey winds through forests and plains, leading to the final explosion of violence and a bittersweet climax where love may not bring the results everyone wants, but takes some to the place they need to be.
Mclean’s film was overshadowed by the release of both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight in 2015, but stands easily besides these other Westerns as a more elegiac and engaging entry into the genre.