“Slow West” is a modern Western clearly made by people that love and respect the genre, though it has more in common with a mismatched buddy comedy than a John Wayne film.
The premise is simple — a young Scottish boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels across late 19th-century West in pursuit of the woman he loves. The boy is incredibly naive and knows not of the unspeakable horrors that lie in the desolate countryside.
Lucky for him, he crosses paths with an outlaw drifter (Michael Fassbender) that offers to help guide and protect him along the way for a small fee. Little does he know the drifter may have a motive of his own.
Fassbender likely says more in voiceover narration than he does to the boy, and the difference in candor between these two mediums reveals there may be more to him than his brutish exterior would indicate. As more characters are introduced, Fassbender’s value to the boy becomes clearer, and his charming demeanour becomes more sinister. The chemistry between the two is always lively and fun, and since the audience knows Fassbender is up to something, the tension only continues to rise until all hell breaks loose.
Besides the actual leads, the real star of the show here is the gorgeous, seemingly endless, wide-open spaces of the old West. The photography does a great job of isolating our heroes — as they go deeper and deeper into unchartered territory, they appear even more alone amongst the sweeping New Zealand backdrops, which themselves are a bit more confined by the director’s decision to shoot 1.66:1.
Westerns are usually the perfect vehicle for a fuller, wider “scope” aspect ratio of 2.35:1, but the smaller, tighter frames work well here, restricting the view and keeping the audience in the same space as the characters. The string-filled score does a great job of accenting the action and feels like a solid mix of old-school and contemporary influences.
The most surprising thing about “Slow West” is how genuinely funny it is in spite of the fact that it’s steeped in Shakespearean level tragedy. There are a number of hilarious gags weaved throughout, and even when things get incredibly dark, there’s a big punchline a second later to ease the pain. It’s not a comedy in the traditional sense, but rather a dark, sad and contemplative story made that much more effective through genuinely funny moments.
By the time “Slow West” reaches its frantic, mayhem-ridden, “Straw Dogs”-esque third act, it’s firing on all cylinders, and is a total blast. It’s masterfully paced, impeccably shot, occasionally violent, often funny, and always a joy to behold.
“Slow West” plays the Tribeca Film Festival Saturday 4/18, Wednesday 4/22 & Friday 4/24.
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