Film Review: Slow West
whisMC Motors, if you’ve not been there, is sort of like a cross between a factory and a circus, and seems as good a venue as any in East London in which to host a film screening. Add pulled pork po’ boys and whiskey sours (both heavy on the Jameson) and you’ve got a very good venue in which to host a film screening. I arrived late and still managed two whiskey sours, a po’ boy and fries, another straight shot of Jameson and a doughnut before sitting down for the film, without so much as breaking a sweat. MC Motors, in fact, is the perfect venue. For anything.
The film in question – Slow West – was not only being screened to the joyful occupiers of MC Motors, but also to cinemas up and down the country as part of Jameson Film Club. The event was hosted by the lovely Edith Bowman, who kicked off proceedings by bringing Django Django (or three members thereof) onstage to perform a short acoustic set. Pretty much the only words they uttered between tracks were “This is a song we did for the film”, which explains what they were doing there…
Next up was a brief hello with the film’s director John Maclean. If you’re up on your cult Scottish folktronica, you may know that Maclean is a former member of The Beta Band. If you’re up on your Michael Fassbender, you may also know that Maclean has previously worked on two shorts with Fassbender, Man on a Motorcycle (2009) and Pitch Black Heist (2011); Slow West is Maclean’s first feature-length film.
At this point Maclean gave a shout out to those watching at Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, where he says he worked as an usher in his younger years. He recalls that it was there he first watched Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West. I have to admit before I go any further that I’ve not seen Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western Once Upon A Time in the West. In fact I’ve not really watched any westerns, always assuming they wouldn’t be for me. But I absolutely loved Slow West. I barely know where to start… Firstly the film just looks beautiful. I’ve always thought of westerns as being a bit brown, but Slow West, shot in the main in New Zealand, is a riot of colour – there are huge blue skies, huge yellow plains and huge green mountains. It gives the entire thing a dream-like quality and makes you feel like your eyes are going to pop out.
The story is also beautiful; skilfully-paced and punctuated by moments of startling tragedy and comedy (there’s one particular bit with some salt which I won’t spoil, but made me do an actual LOL in spite of myself). It centres around a young Scot (Kodi Smit-McPhee; astonishingly not even Scottish, despite the excellent accent) travelling West at the end of the 19th century, accompanied by mysterious, dangerous, long john-wearing Michael Fassbender. As you might expect from a western, there is plenty of shootin’, resulting in more deaths than I hoped for. But despite that, I felt totally elated when the film ended – I was literally grinning from ear to ear. If that’s not a sign of a good film, I don’t know what is.
Maclean joined Edith Bowman onstage again at the end of the film to take questions from the floor, one of which compared his style to that of Wes Anderson (So that’s why I liked it so much!)… Maclean seemed displeased by the comparison but I think it’s fitting. Slow West isn’t as twee as an Anderson film, by a long stretch. But there’s definitely a similarity, if only in the weird tangential humour and the striking colour palette.
Maclean talked about his love of touring America with The Beta Band (one of the other former members is the brother of a Django, by the way…) adding that the most fun thing about writing the script was reading and learning about the history of the [American] West. Because, yes, Maclean also wrote the thing. In his words: “If you want to direct and you don’t know any writers, you have to start writing.”