Preview [spoiler free]
1. Slow West‘s Scottish first-time director, John Maclean, cut his teeth making music videos for The Beta Band, for whom he played keyboards, samplers and decks. Forming in St Andrews, they famously benefited from the endorsement of John Cusack’s record store owner in High Fidelity (dir Stephen Frears, 2000) before splitting in 2004. Maclean made the most of tiny to non-existent budgets to make their memorably inventive promos, including Assessment (2004, with Robin Jones), which had waves of warriors from the beginning of time to the present day charging along one long length of beach in a single tracking shot (and was later ripped off by Romain Gavras for a Samsung advert).
2. Maclean’s little-seen first collaboration with Slow West star Michael Fassbender was Man on a Motorcycle (2009). Having met Fassbender through a mutual friend, Maclean’s music videos impressed the actor enough for him to offer just one day of work. Maclean maximised the brief window of opportunity by writing a script around a helmet-clad character, meaning he only needed to use Fassbender whenever the helmet came off, and a courier pal otherwise. Maclean shot Man on a Motorcycle entirely on a mobile phone, since he knew what it could and couldn’t do, and because he wouldn’t need to work with a crew.
3. Maclean’s next collaboration with Fassbender and his first ‘proper’ short, Pitch Black Heist, was just as inventive. The 14-minute short is built around a three-minute sequence of total darkness. Also starring
Davos Seaworth Liam Cunningham, the story’s conceit is a light-activated alarm system requiring a couple of safe-breakers to prepare so that they can essentially do the job with their eyes closed. Maclean’s crew, a novelty in itself at that point, included Slow West cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
Review [spoiler free]
1. Set in 1870, Slow West tells the story of Jay (a perfectly cast Kodi Smit-McPhee), who travels “from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America,” aided by “brute” and “lonely, lonely man” Silas (Michael Fassbender). Jay, noble by birth, is on the lonely trail of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius) who has fled their homeland with her father in as-yet-unexplained circumstances. It’s beautifully shot, by Robbie Ryan, on location in Wester Ross and an almost psychedelically vibrant New Zealand doubling for the US. Stripling Smit-McPhee (probably best known as the kid in The Road), pretty much nails his Scottish accent and generally conjours a spot-on David Balfour (on casting the Australian in a Scottish role, Maclean has explained, “I did look in Scotland a bit, but it’s actually tough to find 18 year olds that haven’t been to the gym.”) Ben Mendelsohn is effortlessly, casually malevolent in an extended cameo as bounty hunter Payne, while the South African-born Pistorius nails her small but pivotal role.
2. At a tight, concise 90 minutes, there’s no fat on Slow West at all. There’s a real, wicked humour to it and while it’s far too movie-movie to work as a historical drama, it’s wittier than it is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s fable-like, a kind of morality tale, but also constructed like a campfire tale, or a dark bedtime story. It’s anti-romantic, in a sense, so if it’s a fairy tale (and it does begin, “Once upon a time…”), it’s more like an original, Grimm-style one, where the kids all get eaten for being daft. Maclean’s careful visual construction allows for a series of subtle visual jokes that bring a tingle of excitement to even the bleakest moments (in particular, there’s a visual pun par excellence during the climactic gunfight). Maclean’s measured approach means these moments are peppered just carefully enough to keep you in the film, and still wrapped up in the travails of his characters.
3. The writing (also Maclean) and the performances are perfectly judged. Maclean has said the lead role was originally written for Fassbender, and it only became apparent as the writing progressed that he’d be too old (“I had to go round to Michael’s and say, ‘By the way, you’re not the lead any more.'” Maclean said, during a recent BAFTA Q&A in Glasgow). That Maclean ultimately wrote to Fassbender’s strengths (not least allowing him to use something close to his own accent), but also almost wrote him out, says something for the director’s integrity. And Slow West is everything a debut film should be – ambitious but not over-reaching, tightly scripted but not bare and parsed out so as to get the absolute most out the available resources. The film unfurls confidently but not audaciously and there’s a real, thrilling sense of a new, noteworthy filmmaker getting to grips with their one-ton pencil.
1. The biggest spoiler (there’s that warning again) is the death of lead character Jay, shot accidentally by his “lost love” Rose as she defends her homestead against the bounty hunters he’s brought to her doorstep. It’s bold storytelling in some ways, though in retrospect completely inevitable. Of course, the exact circumstances of his end are prefigured very near the start, in a flashback to Scotland, and in another slightly later on. A little later, Silas and Jay stumble upon the skeleton of a man, still trapped under the tree he felled on top of himself. “That’s just a shame,” says Jay. “Is it?” says Silas, grinning. “No,” Jay smiles back. “No, it’s not. Charles Darwin talks of evolution by natural selection.” Silas concludes, “For our sake, let’s hope he’s wrong.” It registers as a humourous interlude on first viewing, but on reflection, it seems clear Rose’s bullet is the tree Jay brings down upon himself. Finally, around 2/3 of the way through, in a premonitory dream, Jay sees Silas and Rose shacked up with a baby, his namesake, and he himself nowhere to be seen. It couldn’t be clearer Jay’s not going to make it, but Maclean’s sleight of hand keeps the inevitable from seeming set. Jay and Silas are opposed in some senses, but I think it’d be a mistake to see Jay’s death as a vindication of pragmatism or pessimism, or droll punishment for his naiveté and sense of entitlement. He has an absurd death, just as his quest is absurd.
2. Having said that, at the BAFTA Q&A, Maclean discussed the humour of the film, with particularly reference to the man found crushed by the tree. “I had a backstory for that guy. He came all the way from Scotland. He survived the boat, which, like, 20% of people survive, and then he survived travelling all the way to that point and then he started building a house and got crushed by a tree.” Maclean explained, “I think a film like Fargo, which I really love for tone, would be a touchstone for this film, which is never ever doing jokes but doing tragic situations that happen to be ridiculous.” That could be the next film, he joked, “Slow West 2: The Life of the Tree Man.”
3. Speaking of the length of the film, particularly the relatively brisk ending, Maclean was adamant it was all deliberate. “Somebody said to me, ‘the ending was really abrupt,’ but when you watch a lot of ’50s noir cinema, which I love, the ending is, like, so quick. It’s kind of basically the baddie gets shot, there’s a kiss and then it ends, and the credits, and it’s all in 10 seconds. I do really love that. I hate the long, drawn-out endings… I definitely knew that I wanted to make a shorter film.” Some of the bigger cinemas, said Maclean, “Aren’t taking it cos it’s got ‘Slow’ in the title.” That’s certainly a shame, because it deserves to be seen, and especially on the big screen. Luckily, Slow West is still getting a decent release, from this Friday, in arthouse cinemas like GFT and the director’s old place of work, Edinburgh’s Cameo. What’s next for Maclean? “I’m starting to write again,” he told the BAFTA audience, “so I’m thinking something contemporary and something maybe in the noir-thriller-heist – the other genre I love – but it’s really early days.”
Watch Pitch Black Heist (2011)
Indiewire interview with John Maclean
Video interview with Kodi-Smit McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn
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