Captured in the right way, the Western frontier was a place of untold beauty and mystery, a vast expanse of open land set under a sparkling night sky.
The indie Western “Slow West,” from writer-director John Maclean, encapsulates that feeling in the way it frames the story of Scottish 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traveling across the 19th-century Mountain West to reunite with the woman he loves (Caren Pistorius).
It’s an age-old story presented as a minimalist fairy tale, with a keen sense of wonder molded with the dirt and grit that is de rigueur in the modern revisionist Western. Cavendish teams up with the bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a resourceful, cigar-chomping archetype who shows him the ropes and becomes a trusted if typically self-absorbed companion.
Their journey includes a clash with a bounty hunter with far less of a conscience than Silas (Ben Mendelsohn) and it’s colored with a consistent degree of humor that ranges from subtle tones to overt slapstick visual gags.
It’s presented with integrity by the filmmaker, who understands the nuances of the genre, particularly the ways it is well suited to capture very human feelings of isolation and insignificance above all.
The actors are game — Fassbender was born for this sort of part, and Smit-McPhee subverts the wide-eyed nature of the character by instilling in him with seamless intelligence.
It’s fair to also want more from the movie, ultimately. The story builds to precious little payoff, and there’s a perpetual war between the bleak overarching nature of the story and the individual moments of comedy and romance.
Maclean is so good at so much that it’s a shame the movie ultimately slips away, landing as an ethereal blip in the grand scheme of cinema that has explored a similar space.