“Dry your eyes, kid. Let’s drift.” That’s the advice offered by the laconic loner played by Michael Fassbender in “Slow West” to the 16-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) he has taken under his wing. It might also be the succinct user’s manual for this meandering, deliberate and tearless — yet oddly moving — western vehicle, which is both slow and, as gunslinger movies tend to be, action packed.
Those words, uttered by Fassbender’s Silas Selleck after he and Smit-McPhee’s Jay Cavendish have just watched three people get gunned down, orphaning two small children, signal his character’s tough hide. But by the end of the film, a more tender side will be revealed.
Silas is a bounty hunter. Jay, a young Scotsman seeking the woman he calls his “true love” (Caren Pistorius) on the Colorado Trail, is Silas’s meal-ticket. Through flashbacks and a series of carefully plotted encounters with fellow travellers, it gradually becomes clear why Jay’s girlfriend has fled Scotland; whether she is “true”; and what exactly Silas gets out of the deal that he has struck with Jay to act as the boy’s “chaperone” for their shared journey, in his words.
“You’re a jackrabbit in a den of wolves,” Silas explains to Jay, who eagerly hands over his cash for Silas’s protection after it becomes apparent how true that metaphor is. Their wake is quickly littered with the fresh corpses of various reprobates, innocent bystanders and predatory former Union soldiers who have had the misfortune of getting in the way of one or the other character’s bullets. (The year is 1870, although in the film — which opens with the words, “Once upon a time” — a New Zealand shooting location passes for Colorado. It’s a “western” only with air quotes around it, a yarn that is, in its own way, as fantastical as a fairy tale.)
If Fassbender’s Silas seems modelled after Clint Eastwood, Smit-McPhee makes for an especially otherworldly Jay. With his pale skin, wide, naive eyes and lanky silhouette, he’s a stranger — literally and figuratively — in a strange land.
So is first-time writer-director John Maclean, a Scottish musician and music video director who brings an outsider’s eye to this most American of genres. The United States is seen as a nation of immigrants — with Swedes, Congolese and other foreigners uneasily occupying lands that, Maclean suggests in no uncertain terms, were stolen from this country’s first inhabitants.
At one point in “Slow West,” Jay wakes up in the middle of nowhere, after his horse and belongings have been stolen by a man named Werner (Andrew Robertt), who had offered him his campsite. The only thing Werner has left Jay is a piece of paper labeled “West,” with an arrow, which quickly becomes useless after it is caught by a gust of wind, tearing it away from the rock it had been sitting under.
The lesson is clear: You can’t trust anyone or anything, let alone your sense of what — or where — true West is.
R. At AFI Silver. Contains violence, crude language and brief nudity. 84 minutes.