We've had comedy Westerns (Blazing Saddles), Black Westerns (Posse, Django) and gay Westerns (Brokeback Mountain) - and just when you think there's no more anyone could add to the genre, along comes a filmmaker to prove you wrong. In writer-director John Maclean's film, a naïve Scottish teenager leaves his homeland for the US to find his "true love", a young woman called Rose who was forced to leave Scotland with her father John after an accident. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays this romantic lad, Jay Cavendish, his other-worldly features fitting the role perfectly. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender plays the hardened outlaw and loner Silas Selleck who demands money from the boy to ensure his safe passage across America to the West coast of the film's title.
Slow West is beautifully shot, harking back to the films of David Lean. Though New Zealand doubles for Frontier America, we get lush panoramic shots of desolate plains, acres of golden wheat and magnificent mountain ranges. This is Homer's Odyssey remade as a Western and Maclean foregoes jump cuts and fast-paced action for deliciously measured takes of Silas and Jay traversing this awe-inspiring landscape on horseback. There are some beautifully observed moments. When Silas and Jay are caught unawares by two Native Americans who attempt to steal their horses, only to find their escape scuppered by a makeshift clothesline. Scenes such as this are laugh-out-loud funny, but Maclean doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of frontier life - hunger and death included.
Classical allusions are apt in this case. Like Homer, Jay encounters a series of characters who each leave their mark in one way or another. Sometimes these encounters feel contrived as when Jay comes across a group of Congolese troubadours, just so he can say the line, "Love is universal like death", it seems, therefore establishing the film's theme.
Though vast, the Mid-west just isn't big enough for Jay keeps happening upon these oddballs and chancers - some more dangerous than others. The pair endure hardships of almost biblical proportions but sure enough, Silas leads Jay to his love - only to discover that the outlaw has an ulterior motive. There is a bounty on the heads of Rose and her father, significant enough to attract attention from several quarters. The only question is can Jay get there first?
Funny, sad and beautiful in equal measure, Slow West is a delight. I can't remember when I have enjoyed a film as much.