British writer/director/musician John Maclean’s 2015 debut feature is a glittering gem at the heart of the western genre as art and lyrical storytelling combines to create a cinematic composition of haunting beauty. Here, Slow West wraps the viewer in a journey of love and innocence against a backdrop of melancholy and violence. While at the same time offering us a classic road movie injected with a dose of wistful elegance and beauty. The result pays homage to the genre it inhabits, while also transcending it by creating something new and distinctive.
The western genre (or sub-genre) has always been a loose vehicle for storytelling, enabling directors to play with its core themes in creating new visions. This trait has led the genre to adapt and change its form over recent years, from The Sisters Brothers to No Country for Old Men and True History of the Kelly Gang. The modern western has embraced human emotion, history, oppression and hope in equal measure. While slowly unpicking the simplistic and dated masculine stereotypes of the John Wayne era. The result has reinvented the public view of the genre while equally reflecting modern fears through a haze of history.
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But despite this, very few westerns have reflected the innocence and blind optimism of young love held within Slow West. A film that embodies the dangerous journeys love can lead an individual to take. While at the same time surrounding these with the brutality, lawlessness and attraction of America’s new frontier.
MacLean provides us with a classic road movie, bringing together two souls from opposing social backgrounds. Their relationship is one of convenience and necessity, that slowly grows into a more caring union. Here love-struck Scottish teen Joe (Kodi Smit-McPhee) embarks on a journey across the new frontier of America’s west in search of his outlawed love Rose. Joe soon bumps into a gun for hire, Silas (Michael Fassbender), as the realisation dawns that he can not safely complete his journey alone. However, Silas will ultimately become a dangerous chaperone and mentor for the wistful teenager. His ulterior motive for offering support, disguised by his protective demeanour.
Some may expect Slow West to reflect its title with a long, plodding narrative, but this could not be further from the truth. For Slow West actually runs at a brisk and riveting 91-minutes. Its stunning cinematography, framed in a Paramount 1:66:1 aspect ratio that focuses the viewer’s attention on each character. At the same time, the dramatic landscapes of America’s West find themselves represented by the equally stunning vistas of New Zealand in a movie that glows with a quiet yet brilliant visual beauty. Slow West skillfully dovetails themes of unrequited love, coming of age and male bonding into a narrative that is both humorous, reflective and lyrical in construct.
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