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Slow West (AF)


Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Edwin Wright, Kalani Queypo

Director: John Maclean

If you ignore Louis Lumiere’s 1-minute long 1895 comedy L'Arroseur arrosé, then the Western, beginning with Edwin S Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, is cinema’s longest-running and probably most filmed genre.

While noting the added spaghetti and tapas of European Westerns, America and the uniquely British Carry on Cowboy, the US remains the natural home of the genre.

Which, despite a plotline that features shootouts, posters detailing wanted outlaws and an outlaw gang, might explain why this ‘Western’ – while containing all the above elements – never quite convinced me of its genre authenticity.

For a start, there are no Americans (native, or otherwise) on either side of the camera.

Writer-director John Maclean (BAFTA winner for the short film ‘Pitch Back Heist) is British, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn are Australian and German-born Michael Fassbender (doubling as Executive Producer) grew up in Ireland.

And 19th century Colorado turns out to have been played and well enough for the purpose of the story by New Zealand.

In 1870, 16-year-old Scottish aristocrat Smit-McPhee heads for Colorado in search of his Scottish love Caren Pistorius whose father had fled to America after a tragedy.

Fortunately for the greenhorn, mysterious, murderous Fassbender agrees to escort him in exchange for cash, and it turns out, to protect him from Mendelsohn and his vicious outlaw gang.

Narrative logic is not one of Maclean’s strengths. The Smit-McFree/Fassbender bond seems more screenwriter-contrived than credible, and the storytelling is patchy and rather too often features more scenery than plot.

Fortunately Robbie Ryan’s cinematography adds valuable impact.

A shoot-out in an isolated store (“May I ask you to place your iron on the counter while you browse”, the shopkeeper asks an outlaw, to little ultimate effect) is well handled.

And the climactic attack by Mendelssohn and his gun-crazy posse on what must surely qualify as the cleanest shack ever shown in a Western is exciting and racks up an impressive shown-to-the-camera body count.

‘Slow West’ (which won a prize at Sundance) is rather too appropriately titled. Its 84-minute running time seems longer.

Since Film 4 was involved (along with Lottery funding dished out by the BF!) maybe the film’s natural habitat is the small screen.

That said, there is enough on offer for me to look forward to Maclean’s future work, although I would suggest that this time he ignores that legendary American advice, “Go West, young man”.)

And it is short enough to avoid longueurs.

Alan Frank

UK/New Zealand 2015. UK Distributor: Lionsgate. Colour.
83 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 23 Jun 2015