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Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews Slow West

In the last several years, Michael Fassbender has shot right up to the top of the list of the finest actors working today.  Like many, I first took notice of Mr. Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.  I was blown away by the masterful way in which Mr. Fassbender took complete ownership of the character of Magneto, who had previously been inhabited so iconically by Sir Ian McKellan.  Since then, Mr. Fassbender has dazzled in films like Prometheus (Mr. Fassbender’s performance as the android David was one of the best elements of that muddled film) and Steve Jobs.  And so I was tickled by the idea of seeing Mr. Fassbender play a cowboy in a Western!

SlowWest.cropped

In Slow West, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay, a young Scottish boy following the girl he loves to the American West.  It seems that Rose and her father (played by Rory McCann — Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones!) have been forced to flee Scotland (for a reason that the film gradually reveals), and so Jay has set off after them.  Along the way, Jay encounters the outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to help Jay track down Rose and her father in exchange for payment.  What Silas knows, and Jay doesn’t, is that a sizable bounty has been placed on Rose and her father’s heads.

Written and directed by John Maclean, Slow West is a tremendously impressive debut film.  The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with nearly every frame filled with staggeringly beautiful views of the American Old West.  That beauty is contrasted by the dangerous and cruel world in which Jay finds himself.  The film seems to take the viewpoint of Silas, who early on describes himself as seeing danger around every corner.  No one who Jay encounters, apparently, is not a threat to him.  The film masterfully creates a feeling of dread, one that grips ever tighter as Jay and Silas get closer to Rose.

Kodi Smit-McPhee continues to impress.  He was great in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as in The Road (a movie that shares a lot of similarities with Slow West, come to think of it!  It’s another tale of a boy and a father-figure on a perhaps-doomed road trip through dangerous territory) and he does great work again here.  Mr. Smit-McPhee gives Jay heart and spirit and also intelligence.  Jay is incredibly naive but Mr. Smit-McPhee doesn’t over play that.  Jay is a little bumbling but not entirely hapless.

Mr. Fassbender meanwhile is just as much fun as I had hoped he would be.  In Silas, Mr. Fassbender creates a wonderfully endearing and fascinating character, bringing life to what could have been a too-simplistic Han Solo-like affable tough guy.  (It’s funny that I should mention Han Solo, as Slow West often felt to me like a super-serious remake of The Frisco Kid, a terrific but sadly somewhat forgotten Harrison Ford/Gene Wilder film from 1979.  Go watch it immediately if you’ve never seen it!)  Silas has to make an important choice in the third act, and Mr. Fassbender’s strong performance, along with his terrific chemistry with Kodi Smit-McPhee, helps keep us in suspense as to which way Silas is going to go.  This movie works because of Michael Fassbender’s performance.

Slow West is a fairly short film, something nice to see in this age of many overly-long epics.  The film doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s a fairly short and to-the-point story.  Part of me wishes that Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s great characters were in a longer, more substantial story.  Part of me wishes that the film had spent a little more time developing these characters, or giving more twists and turns to the story of their journey together.  But the other part of me respects the film for having the courage to tell a fairly short, straight-forward story, trusting in the strength of the story and the performances, and not trying to muddy it up with unnecessary complications and digressions.

Slow West didn’t make my Best Movies of 2015 list, but neither does it deserve to be ignored.  It’s a great Western, and if you’re a fan of Michael Fassbender it is not to be missed.  I’m glad to have seen it.

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