Review: Slow West

Slow West is far more electric, and fleeting experience than it’s title might suggest. Accumulating bodies at the rate of a Tarantino movie, and hurtling towards a dramatic shootout with agility and wit, this is tense and artful cinema.

images-5The film opens with Michael Fassbender’s distinctive voice declaring that this is Jay Cavendish’ story (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a romantic young Scotsman who is undertaking a pilgrimage across Colorado to rescue his love Rose (a stoic and bewitching Caren Pistorius who proves more than capable of rescuing herself).

In the first leg of his journey, after a near-fatal rendezvous with some soldiers, he happens upon Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a cynical outlaw who takes Jay under his ruthless wing and promises him safe passage out West; though his own reasons for traveling across the perilous frontier become increasingly sinister.

Indeed, we are soon informed in dramatic irony that Rose and the father with whom she escaped her native Scotland with have bounties on their heads, and that Silas has offered his protection to Jay only to reach them first – surpassing the troop of bounty hunters also on their tail.


First time director John Maclean conjures up a smorgasbord of villains for Jay and Silas to confront, cultivating a mood of unwarranted jeopardy and injustice at every turn; most pointedly when a desperate Swedish couple whose heist-gone-wrong is just one of the many ways to die in the West.

Accumulating bodies at the rate of a Tarantino movie, and hurtling towards a dramatic shootout with agility and wit, this is tense and artful cinema.

There are elements of Wes Anderson in the off-kilter storytelling, with outbursts of violence at once alarming and almost comical (an injured man gets salt in his wound and a dead one is forced to de-trouser in a bid for another’s survival). The encounters are increasingly ephemeral and Machiavellian, like something borne out of a feverish dream. No one – even under Fassbender’s watchful eye – is safe in this neck of the woods.

slow-west-ben-mendelsohnOne such bandit takes the form of Ben Mendelsohn’s fur-coat wearing, absinthe-drinking maverick, expanding on his colourful repertoire of madmen (see Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly and Starred Up).

Picaresque, immaculate scenery provide the backdrop for the brutal lessons in survival that Jay must learn. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, Catch Me Daddy – and The Karman Line, a breath-taking short film which you can see here) captures the heightened, glimmering terrain with a startling clarity. His compositions feel fresh and vivid, saturated with fluorescent colours and crisp juxtapositions. It may subtract from the film’s authenticity, but here it works, reflecting the illusory nature of the Manifest Destiny upon which Westward Expansion was justified and echoing Jay’s own misguided idealism.

The companionship between Jay and Silas is touching but never maudlin – a highlight of which is their inventive way to dry off their clothes after a flood. Whether through guilt or a paternal sense of obligation, Silas feels compelled to protect for his teenage ward; a sentiment never more apparent than when he enlightens Jay about the art of shaving. (An act still laced with menace thanks to the presence of a machete).


Fassbender’s steely, unnerving Silas confirms his status as one of the most diverse, and masculine actors to have graced our screens. Meanwhile, Australian actor McPhee (doing a credible Scottish accent) gives his best performance since The Road. His Jay is determined yet naïve; a boy in a man’s world and a romantic unsuited to the harsh wilderness.

Tonally the film is quite jarring, but no less brilliant for it. It’s a melting pot of influences just as America is of cultures; with it’s blending of biting witticism, lyrical romanticism and visceral bloodshed particularly reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Mixing native chants with plucky strings, the elegiac and playful scoring from Jed Kurzel also lends the film an air of contemporary quirkiness.


Still, for a genre so iconographic and plagued by convention, Maclean has created something that riffs, but never rips, off its predecessors and remains outstandingly original. Slow West is a film of considerable artistry – both aesthetically and narratively – and certainly one of the best to have come out this year.

Verdict: Striking, surreal and spiky, a Western unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

9 Films From a Feminine Perspective

Originally published by Raindance 

It would be degrading and reductive to outline what might consist of a ‘feminine aesthetic’. It would suggest that cinema about, or written/directed by women is operating solely in contrast or in counter to, the dominant masculine style, rather than merely – and necessarily – portraying the diversity and difference of our experiences.

These films selected below, though by no means an extensive list, go to demonstrate the generic and stylistic variety that female-centric cinema is capable of. It goes to show that women are by no means limited by their gender and that women do not constitute a certain or specific type of stylistic output. In my opinion, these films serve to highlight our complexities, difficulties and capabilities. That heroes can be female and that they can take many forms…

4375.originalMeek’s Cutoff (DIR. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Director Kelly Reichardt is well-known for her reworking of genre to encompass a female perspective. In Meek’s Cutoff she takes on the Western and subverts it’s inherent theme of rugged masculinity, by placing Michelle Williams’ Emily at the forefront of a group of pioneers advancing westwards into unchartered territory. The camera emphasises the female experience and in doing so carves a space into the American landscape for a gender otherwise marginalised.

05_Flatbed_1 - JANUARYWinter’s Bone (DIR. Debra Granik, 2010)

Shot on location in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, Debra Granik’s films follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role) in her perilous attempt to track down her absent, meth-addicted father, with the aim of protecting her home and family. Taking charge of her economically-deprived destiny, Ree’s search for answers resembles that of a lone cowboy, crossing boundaries both literal and metaphorical to find meaning in the world. Labelled as ‘rural noir’, Granik’s film disrupts genre conventions in its placement of a female protagonist in a hostile, violent and depraved world.

thelma-and-louiseThelma and Louise (DIR. Ridley Scott, 1991)

A seminal feminist film, Thelma and Louise are two best-friends who take to the road in a symbolic and literal two-fingers up to gender conventions and authority. Part road-movie, part crime-caper, these two women embark on a journey of liberation as they become both increasingly violent, and assertive. Driving along an open road in their T-Bird convertible and getting the last word over the cops on their tails, Thelma and Louise rebelled against genre, and societal expectations.

Jennifer-lawrence-stars-as-katniss-everdeen-in-the-hunger-gamesThe Hunger Games (DIR. Gary Ross, 2012)

A female Rambo of sorts, our leather-clad, bow and arrow-wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of endurance, indestructibility and strength. Following in the footsteps of Ellen Ripley, Lara Croft or even Joan of Arc, Katniss subverts the notion that the action genre is an arena reserved solely for her male counterparts. Some film critics have even compared her to the archetype of the Western hero as embodied by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – a marginalised loner, existing on the fringes of society. Most importantly, Katniss seems to transcend gender boundaries, acting as both surrogate mother to her younger sister Prim and assuming responsibility as bread-winner for her family. Ultimately, she upends the rules; both of the Hunger Games and the action genre.

GRAVITYGravity (DIR. Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)

The final frontier, and indeed, the moon, were advertised as places ‘where no man had gone before’, let alone women. In 2013, Gravity turned the tables – and pretty much everything else – upside down, not least in it’s depiction of a female astronaut. Dr. Ryan Stone (a name which begs the question whether she was initially written as male), must scrape together all her resources to survive against the odds when a space mission goes awry. As narrative progresses she transforms from a nervous, panicked and inexperienced astronaut, to a capable and determined one (with just a little bit of help from George Clooney). Her gender is irrelevant to her ability, something which makes for a refreshing watch.

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-an-interview-with-rooney-mara-daniel-craig-and-david-fincher.img.594.396.1324267469019The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (DIR. David Fincher, 2011)

Emotionally fragile, but physically formidable, Lisbeth Salander is perhaps the fiercest female on this list. TGWADT navigates the world of corporate corruption through the eyes of inked, pierced and pissed-off computer whizz Lisbeth, as she sets about getting revenge on the men that abused, and institutionalised her. In the meantime, Lisbeth proves herself just as commanding, clever and quite frankly terrifying, as any male vigilante on the big screen.

hailee_steinfeld_in_true_grit-wideTrue Grit (DIR. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

In the Coen Brothers’ remake of Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit follows the traditional Western trajectory of revenge, against the backdrop of a harsh and desolate landscape. Finding herself in this hostile environment of whiskey-swigging, gun-toting, foul-mouthed cowboys is 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who must prove she has enough grit to survive. And boy does she. Mattie has no interest in her male counterparts for protection or otherwise, and continually demonstrates that she has the confidence, competence and sass to outsmart them all.

million-dollar3Million Dollar Baby (DIR. Clint Eastwood, 2004)

The boxing ring is a place where blood, sweat and spectacle reigns. Where violence is a language and machismo is the currency. Hardly deemed a place for a woman. Million Dollar Baby trod relatively new territory then in depicting the trials and tribulations of Maggie (an Oscar-winning turn from Hilary Swank), a working-class woman who conquers the boxing world. Whilst she masculines herself to trainer Frank’s tastes, to see a woman in the ring at all is certainly a change of pace and a forceful blow to the notion that only men can put up a fight.

zero-2Zero Dark Thirty (DIR. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Wars, and by extension, war movies, have typically been the domain of the male population. However, this Kathryn Bigelow helmed exploration of the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Laden represents and honours the real female CIA operative whose dedication was key to his capture. Jessica Chastain, as Maya, is on formidable, snarling form. She imbues the characters with stoicism, steely resolve and unshakeable determination. In some respects she is both the hero and the villain of the story, employing controversial interrogation techniques to achieve her aims. But the point that Bigelow successfully drives home is that she is the lone wolf; the sole female mole at table of ego-driven male officers and thus a symbol of exceptionalism.

This is by no means an extensive list. Please share your own suggestions for films which subvert a masculine genre!