Film

Slow West Is a Gorgeous Dada Western

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This stately, sparkling outlaws-on-the-range indie whatsit has a sturdy western story hook — a lovelorn teen schnook from Scotland (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a rapacious bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) team up to find the same woman for very different reasons.

But its chief suspense is meta: Will the film, whose frontier beauty is touched with Dada, mosey all the way to its destination before it lists into straight-up comedy? Outside one outstanding sight gag in the climax, and one choice tall-tale flashback delivered by a rando at a campfire, director John Maclean mostly keeps Slow West poker-faced.

Its central journey lives up to the title: Maclean finds time to savor rivers and starscapes and layers of light and mountainous land. The dialogue is flighty yet weighty, each line like some delicate woodcut. “A railroad to the moon,” the schnook imagines, before offering up this lament: “First thing we’ll do when we get there is hunt the natives down.”

The ending’s bloody, and the stars acquit themselves well, but what sticks here is a parade of memorable images, lensed by Robbie Ryan: an egg holding down a handwritten note on a windy plain; gunmen rising from a patch of golden wheat; a chopped-down tree lying atop the skeleton of an axman.

The lost America of Slow West — shot in New Zealand — is prickly and beautiful, inspired and inspiring — it’s the rare western that invites you to imagine what life then and there might actually have felt like, sight gags and all. Maclean is a supremely promising talent.

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