Slow West, film review: John Maclean's mini-epic combines lyricism, humour and violence

(15) John Maclean, 83 mins. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn
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The Independent Culture

The imminent death of the Western is often proclaimed but it is a genre that shows surprising resilience. This debut feature from the Scottish film-maker and musician John Maclean is a revelation: a beautifully written mini-epic, which combines lyricism, very dry humour and violence. Its characters and settings may seem familiar but Maclean's treatment of them is idiosyncratic and original. This is not a self-conscious exercise in pastiche, like the recent Danish Western The Salvation. It has a real tenderness at its heart.

The locations extend from the "cold shoulder of Scotland" to the "baking heart" of America. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay Cavendish, a young, upper-class Highlander venturing west in pursuit of his sweetheart Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), a woman from a crofting community who has fled Scotland with her father. Jay is naive and ill-equipped to survive in the lawless west but, driven by love, is brave. Fassbender is a hardbitten outlaw who knows his time is running out. For a fee and with another motive in mind, he becomes a Rooster Cogburn-like father figure to the boy.

Dialogue is terse but there is a wry and fatalistic voice-over from Fassbender along with plenty of epigrammatic one-liners. As the title suggests, Maclean is in no hurry. Even at the most climactic moments, he always looks for an offbeat perspective. Fassbender's Clint Eastwood-like stoicism is contrasted with the boy's feverish idealism. There are also some rich character performances from the likes of Ben Mendelsohn and Rory McCann, from Game of Thrones, as Rose's father.