A folksy fable defined equally by its whimsy and wistfulness, director John Maclean's Slow West unfolds in the wake of the American Civil War as a collection of natives, outlaws and settlers often meet violent ends in pursuit of land, money, and love. Our innocent surrogate in this hostile domain is smitten 16-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who's fled his wealthy Scottish family in pursuit of working-class crush Rose (Caren Pistorius). As the stoic stranger Silas (Michael Fassbender) describes in voice-over, young Jay is "a jackrabbit in a den of wolves," willing to pay Silas to serve as chaperone while oblivious to the fact that his new protector falls among those looking to collect the bounty on Rose's head for crimes committed back home.
As the romantic and the realist set off across the wilderness in search of their respective rewards, Maclean ensures that they run into all manner of characters, hailing from all manner of lands, ranging from a fur coat-clad Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) to a trio of Congolese immigrants to a German anthropologist who wryly observes that "in a short time, this will be a long time ago." That melancholic undercurrent of an era nearly bygone is what holds Slow West together, in spite of seeming at first glance a shaggy assembly of matter-of-fact executions and stuff-of-legend yarns.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that a star like Fassbender was ready-made to wear a stern glare and a wide-brim hat in the Eastwood tradition, or that Smit-McPhee serves as a fine foil, his newfound physical gangliness doubling as an expression of the character's naive uncertainty. Jay's journey feels all the more futile because, as we gather from flashbacks, he was a pioneer of the friend zone before it even had a name. His insistence on pressing onward, despite seeing Native American villages left to smolder and desperate settlers gunned down in cold blood, reflects the bleak promise of the land and the times. (After wishing out loud that he could build a railroad to the moon, Jay then admits: "The first thing we'll do when we get there is hunt down the natives.")
Unlike many a modern Western, Slow West runs a courteously brisk 84 minutes, just the right length for its particular blend of off-kilter comedy and offhand cruelty; the climactic shootout is a doozy in both regards, complete with a sight gag for the ages. More evidently worthy of its genre is the endlessly striking wide-screen scenery, with New Zealand handsomely passing for 19th century Colorado. When coupled with scattered accents and gallows humor, these idealized landscapes seem to suit a tale all about an America that never quite was, a homestead driven by desire, but built on bodies. ♦