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.
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.