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. 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, is the hero of his own great romantic adventure. 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. 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."
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.