There’s an alien feel to “Slow West,” an unconventionally conventional Western about a romantic tenderfoot provided safe passage to the frontier by a grizzled, unsentimental gunman.
Credit the New Zealand locations — fresh and convincingly Western with nary a hobbit to be found. Credit the German-Irish Michael Fassbender, who heads a cast that gives this immigrant era a distinctly international feel.
But credit most of all first-time feature director John Maclean, an old friend of Fassbender’s who brings a fresh eye to Western situations, shootouts and archetypes.
Young Jay Cavendish, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, matured from his boyhood work in “The Road” and “Let Me In,” is the hero of his own great romantic adventure. To the manner born, he dared to love fair Rose (Caren Pistorius) back in Ireland. But a misunderstanding that was “all my fault” forced her and her father to flee to America. And Jay has resolved to find her.
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It’s 1870, and he’s content to think poetic thoughts and stare at the stars, a born victim on horseback. When he points his gun at the apparent desperado Silas (Fassbender, of the X-Men prequels), it misfires. Silas grabs it from him, and being a man of few words, gives his first advice.
“Clean it. Oil it.”
Silas sizes the kid up and senses a payday.
“You need a chaperon. I’m a chaperon.”
That’s a mighty fancy French word for a gunslinger in the Old West, and just the first clue that Maclean is seeking fresh ground here. They fend off ex-soldiers turned “Injun Slayers,” interrupt a desperate Slavic-sounding couple’s attempt to rob a trading post and hear the French patois of a random trio of Haitian singers they pass. Jay falls in with a German writer-philosopher fancy-camping his way across the frontier, and is stalked by a coed/multiethnic gang of bounty hunters led by the crude, absinthe-loving Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
Bullets fly, bodies fall. Jay is slow to learn, but unshaken in his quest. Silas has a secret. And Rose and her father (Rory McCann) carry on at their far western homestead, blithely unaware of the fate coming to them on the backs of many horses.
Fassbender makes a very cool, almost anachronistic highwayman. “Dry your eyes, kid. Let’s drift,” Silas says when it’s time to ride off, leaving bodies or parentless children behind.
Building your movie on archetypes and a time-worn initiation/quest plot means that there are no real surprises to “Slow West.” But Maclean and his cast create a sound, tone and feel that makes even a moldy tale like this lean, mean and fresh, even if it never quite transcends the gun smoke of its genre.