J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Slow West: From the Highlands to the High Plains

Yes, the Old West was a violent place, but what could you expect if everyone brought over their grudges from the Old Country. Rose Ross and her father are a case in point. There was a good reason they left Scotland in a hurry. Unfortunately, a lovesick lad from home might very well lead all that trouble straight to their doorstep in John Maclean’s Slow West (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Clearly, young, naïve Jay Cavendish considers Ross the love of his life, but it is unclear just what he is to her. Nevertheless, he has an address and is determined to “save” the lass. Traveling through the rugged Colorado plains is a dangerous proposition, but Cavendish finds an ostensive protector. Silas Selleck will try to keep the boy alive, but he has different ideas for Ross. Unbeknownst to Cavendish, a price has been put on the heads of the Ross father and daughter. Selleck is the sort of man who collects on them.

Of course, he is hardly the only hunting the Rosses. Selleck’s old acquaintance Payne is also on the trail. It is safe to say their rivalry is not the friendly sort. Payne would have no problem killing anyone in his way, whereas Selleck genuinely starts to like Cavendish. Obviously this produces seriously conflicted feelings on his part. Regardless, it will all inevitably lead to a violent standoff of some sort. After all, it is the Old West.

At this point, it is too late to call Slow West a revisionist western, because its in-your-face critique of Manifest Destiny represents the current official story of westward expansion. Despite a few heavy-handed sequences (to put it mildly), Maclean still constructs a compelling men vs. men tale, set against a harsh but breathtaking natural backdrop (in this case, it is New Zealand stepping in for the Colorado plains).

Slow West is also a heck of an example of how much the right wardrobe can add to a film. In the future, Ben Mendelsohn will probably be known simply as “the dude in the fur coat.” Costume designer Kirsty Cameron makes everyone look period appropriate, but that enormous trapper coat adds additional layers of attitude and Mendelsohn’s characterization of Payne.

The film also marks the third cinematic collaboration between Maclean and Michael Fassbender and serves as a reminder why it is potentially perilous for critics and film journalists to ignore shorts films, like their previous Man on a Motorcycle and the BAFTA Award winning neo-noir Pitch Black Heist. Fassbender is instantly credible as a high plains drifter and he keeps cranking up Selleck’s intensity as they approach the Ross homestead. Even though Kodi Smit-McPhee’s vacant screen presence is highly problematic in any film charging admission, it sort of works for the clueless and immature Cavendish. However, the real discovery in Slow West is the forceful work of Caren Pistorius as Rose Ross.

Slow West features some truly impressive technical craftsmanship, particularly Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which is big in every way. Maclean also stages a terrific gunfight, bringing to mind the climax of Kevin Costner’s criminally under-appreciated Open Range. Recommended for fans of post-Little Big Man westerns, Slow West opens this Friday (5/15) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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