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15° & CLEAR SKY ON TUESDAY 28 MAY IN BRISBANE
By Sarah Ward
June 09, 2015
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Sydney Film Festival Presents: Slow West

A wandering western, Slow West both embraces and reinvents the genre.
By Sarah Ward
June 09, 2015
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If ever there was a genre that demands to be seen in a cinema, it's the western. Wide-open plains that stretch as far as the eye can see, weary journeyers navigating harsh terrain, splashes of lush greenery that offer glimpses of hope: these are images made for the big screen.

They're also the kind of visuals Slow West makes its own, from dense scrubland to dusky wooden huts, and from golden fields to inky nighttime scenes. There's no wondering why writer/director John Maclean chose to relay the bulk of his debut feature through its sights, rather than through dialogue. There's no wondering why the film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, either.

Slow West describes both the pace and the direction that Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) favours, the 16-year-old Scotsman ambling along upon his arrival in America. The time is 1870, the place is Colorado and his mission is to find his childhood love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled their homeland with her father (Rory McCann) after an unfortunate incident.

Jay is driven by emotion and lacking in Wild West wiles, as made clear when lone rider Silas (Michael Fassbender) saves him from certain death at the hands of some unfriendly fellows. It's in his best interests to pay the sharpshooter to remain as his guide — and it's in both of their best interests to avoid the bounty hunter (Ben Mendelsohn) and his posse on their trail.

This is Maclean's first stint directing a movie, and what a striking debut it is. As a former musician with the Beta Band, he demonstrates a delicate sense of rhythm, which is quite a feat in a film that's slow by name and by nature. Or, perhaps patient better fits, with the feature never in a rush to reveal its details. Instead, it takes its time to build drama. It lets the interrupting outbursts of both violence and comedy feel like just that. And it allows ample opportunity to enjoy its scenic views, too.

Such surges of action include a spectacular general store altercation early on, and the inevitable — but never plodding or routine — big finale. Maclean isn't only talented with his imagery and timing, but with balancing a mood of contemplation with explosive yet artistic displays of gunfire.

He shows a similar knack for casting, the small but substantial lineup of actors always impressive. Fassbender's stoic antihero and Smit-McPhee's lovesick teen might not be fleshed out in the script, but they never feel flimsy, thanks to their performances. The same can be said for Mendelsohn, clearly enjoying his recent surge of playing assholes.

Yes, the trio fall into the usual western roles — the innocent needing help, the conflicted veteran and the dastardly villain — however, nothing about Slow West could really be described as usual. It's not just its visuals that make the film a stunning example of cinema, or of its genre, though they're always a treat to look at. A wandering western, this is a movie that both embraces and reinvents the expected, as all movies should.

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