Slow West

Posted by Michael Parsons on May 21, 2015 in / No Comments


When weathered drifter Silas (Michael Fassbender) saves young lovesick Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a group of unsavory characters in the dangerous Colorado territories, the brutish loner decides that the kid will need a chaperone if he wants to make it much further. What the kid doesn’t realize is that Silas’ initial motives aren’t exactly altruistic; he’s a bounty hunter, and Jay is leading him right to a big payday, a Scottish immigrant named Rose (Caren Pistorius) who, in addition to being the object of Jay’s somewhat misplaced affection, is wanted for murder along with her father (Rory McCann of “Game of Thrones”).

75Usually, all I ask for in a Western is a decent revenge story with a high body count (this year’s “The Salvation” somewhat fulfilled that), but “Slow West”, from first-time feature writer/director John Maclean, does a sight better. The film begins as any garden variety buddy adventure might: the seasoned gunslinger bails out the scrawny bookworm and gives him a few lessons in survival on the frontier (single-file with the horses, is the first dictum), while the young intellectual, quoting Darwin and immersed in what is essentially a 19th Century edition of a Lonely Planet guide, groans on about what a Neanderthal his cigar-smoking savior is.

But a flip-flop occurs fairly early on in their dynamic, when a holdup at a remote supply store reveals that Jay is not jut brains, and Silas is not just a blunt instrument, and thereafter it’s hard to anticipate what’s going to happen between the two of them as they trek across the  breathtaking country (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) en route to Rose. Things get more complicated when the off-kilter duo encounter one of Silas’ old gang-mates, a fur-clad piece of bad news named Payne (played by Ben Mendelsohn of the Netflix series “Bloodline”), who shows up at their campsite offering absinthe and some thinly veiled threats.

“Slow West” delivers more surprises than your typical Western, but  perhaps the biggest of them is the evolution of Fassbender’s Silas from aloof outlaw into a multifaceted, surprisingly sympathetic character. Smit-McPhee, his co-star in the upcoming “X-Men:Apocalypse”, plays equal parts intelligent, delusional and strong-willed, a fitting contrast to  Fassbender, who radiates intensity even in his sleep. And a compelling performance is given by Pistorius, whose Rose begins as just an ethereal component of Jay’s daydreams but emerges as something entirely different.

The cinematography from Robbie Ryan is striking, notably a cloud-ensconced mountain vista fitfully illuminated by lightning, while Jed Kurzel, who recently sent chills up our spines with his score for “The Babadook”, lends his low-key acoustic strings to this engrossing, unusual genre entry.

And also, a high body count.

Available now on VOD, opening tomorrow at the Charles Theater in Baltimore.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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