‘Slow West’
John Maclean
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Slow West” isn’t your usual anti-Western. For one thing, it’s roughly half a regular Western — a corker of an oater that could have, in the hands of a more traditional filmmaker, made for, as they call it, a “solid genre entry.” (Like many of the greats of the ’40s and ’50s, this runs a lean 80-some minutes.) Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, a 16-year-old Scotsman who’s come to the great Old West to locate his beloved. He’s ill-equipped for the brutality of the time and place. He also doesn’t care. He soldiers ahead into unfriendly terrain unafraid of not being afraid. Luckily he’s picked up by Silas (Michael Fassbender), a cigarillo-chomping man with a name, and they must face off against, among others, a baddie (Ben Mendelsohn) clad in an ostentatious fur coat.

Silas seems to have walked straight out of the Western genre itself, and it’s the back-and-forth between myth and something weirder that gives “Slow West” its tension and unique voice. It’s not a revisionist Western, although it deals head-on with the pitiless red-in-tooth-and-claw indifference of the unconquered West, in which one could get lost forever or succumb to the elements, or worse. But its bleakness is tempered by a goofy streak, complete with the odd sight gag. At one point Jay and Silas happen upon a skeleton lying underneath a felled tree, arms splayed like a squashed cartoon character, an ax still by its side. A funny tragedy happened so long ago, in such a remote part of the planet, that no one has found this poor shlub — or if they did, they simply moved on without even taking the weapon.

That’s one of several funny moments and set pieces in “Slow West,” which affects a tone at some points deadpan, at others simply detached. Director John Maclean comes from the world of music; he was the keyboardist and sampler for The Beta Band, and there’s a mix-match quality to his take on the genre that marries tones, including dark comedy and magical realism, to a tougher worldview, where characters good and bad suffer death and bothersome wounds. It can make room for an absurdist diversion, in which Jay, bumbling about at night, accidentally sits down at the wrong campsite before awkwardly excusing himself from his newfound maybe-friends. And it has a climax that works as both a deconstruction and a primo example of a classic shoot-’em-up set piece. It wants you to be conscious of genre tropes and bite your nails at the same time.

Still, Maclean doesn’t shoot it in a Western style employed by anyone, possibly ever. His camera doesn’t prowl or dwell over vistas; it barely moves at all. Each shot is a fixed tableau; the story progresses via editing, not panning. Some of it is even more sly. Silas may be a taciturn badass, but he’s also our flowery narrator; he doesn’t say much during the action because he’s saving it for the soundtrack. Maclean is coming off music videos and shorts, but this is a scarily assured feature debut, mashing together stray elements into a smooth brew. You can watch it with your art snob pals and with your Clint Eastwood movie-raised dad.

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