Three stars (out of four)
R (violence, brief language)
Antelope Valley moviegoers can catch this film at the BLVD Cinemas in Lancaster, where it continues to play through next week. It’s also available On Demand.
The Western genre shows no signs of dying — with its boots on or off — thanks to “Slow West,” John Maclean’s aptly named but striking deconstruction of the romance of the American frontier.
Shot in New Zealand (which isn’t quite convincing as Colorado to American eyes, but is epically wild and gorgeous, nonetheless), the film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a 16-year-old Scottish lad clumsily traversing the Rockies in search of his long lost lass.
That premise is about as cliche as it gets, but nothing about this story of a young knight in shining armor riding forth to rescue his damsel in distress transpires in the way you’d expect.
Jay Cavendish is traveling solo through Colorado territory — with an over-burdened pony and a laughably optimistic how-to guide to the West — in hope of reuniting with his girl, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), whose hearty beauty we glimpse in flashback.
The boy is delivered from his own naivete, not to mention a band of Army deserters, by Silas (Michael Fassbender), one of those tall, mysterious, silent types who tend to populate the movie Western.
Silas demands Jay fork over what cash he has in exchange for his services as a guide. He’ll ferry Jay safely to his beloved Rose, but his real motivation for this good deed is unclear, at least initially.
To say more would potentially spoil the surprises in store. “Slow West” meanders along at an occasionally trying pace, but if you’re patient, a little delayed gratification pays off in a big way during the film’s violent finale, so full of irony and tragedy, it’s downright Shakespearean.
This is one of those films in which it’s all about the journey, not the destination, and the relationship between the two main characters, simmering with a subtle tension.
In his feature film debut, Maclean reveals himself as a talent to keep tabs on. The director studied drawing and painting in Edinburgh and London and has an artist’s eye for landscapes and human tableau, honed while making videos for his music groups, The Beta Band and The Aliens, as well as a couple of short films with Fassbender.
Maclean has crafted a revisionist Western that feels fresh, modern, almost post-apocalyptic, punctuated by absurd, comical (sometimes sad) twists of fate — a flash flood creeps up on a pair of sleeping travelers, a desperate couple with the worst case of bad luck ever attempts to hold up a trading post.
Eccentric characters wander in and out of the frame, including that guy who plays The Hound on “Game of Thrones” (Rory McCann), Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, clad in an outrageous fur coat, and a German anthropologist named Werner who is uncannily similar to a certain German documentarian.
As a child actor, Smit-McPhee racked up an impressive body of work (“The Road,” “Let Me In”). Older and a little ganglier here, he continues to show uncommon maturity, smoothly capitalizing on his innocent, naturally awkward appearance.
Fassbender also plays to his strengths. He’s always been attracted to morally ambiguous characters, although Silas is a little less ambiguous and a little more likable than the dark misfits he tends to specialize in.
Still, it’s a treat to see him doing something different in a movie that’s not like anything we’ve seen before.