Occupying a similar niche to 2014's underrated The Homesman, John Maclean's blackly comic Western road trip may be destined to be seen by equally few people. But if you pass over the chance to experience this magnificent, affecting movie in favour of some blockbuster pap at the local multiplex, you'll be missing a contender for film of the year.
et in the wilds of Colorado towards the end of the 19th century, writer-director Maclean's debut feature follows the travails of 16-year-old Scottish immigrant Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee), as he attempts to cross the American West in pursuit of his homeland sweetheart, Rose Ross (Pistorius). "Love is universal, like death," Jay cheerily remarks to a group of black minstrels he meets, little realising how harshly his mantra is about to be tested.
Armed with just a compass, a kettle and a book entitled Ho! For the West!, the naive idealist is soon caught up between a band of Yankee soldiers and their fleeing Indian prey. Into the fray steps the masked outlaw Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a comparatively enlightened man for this place and time, who rescues Jay and insists on escorting him to his destination - for cash, naturally.
The set-up from here on is wondrous in its simplicity. Rose and her father happen to have a $2,000 bounty on their heads, which the outwardly benign Silas hopes to get his hands on. Meanwhile, along the way, the duo have to stay one step ahead of Ben Mendelsohn's menacing renegade, some accident-prone Native Americans and the unforgiving landscape itself. (The film was shot in New Zealand and Scotland, though you'd never know.)
Comparisons with the Coen brothers are unavoidable. As well as being gorgeously photographed and sharply edited, the picture takes several Coen-worthy unexpected lefts and rights, and there are a couple of sardonic visual gags that would put Fargo or No Country for Old Men to shame. But Slow West is its own movie.
At a mere 84 minutes, there is absolutely no fat on its bones. Every moment has purpose; every line of dialogue has meaning. Notions of 'good' or 'bad' carry little weight in Maclean's world. The characters are so finely written that even Mendelsohn's Payne and his gang prove beguiling, albeit when they're not necking absinthe or gunning down bears.
But at the centre is the relationship between Jay and Silas, as complexly drawn as in any drama. Their pairing mutates back and forth from father-son, to brotherly, to a rivalry of sorts, and the denouement offers a deliciously ironic punchline.
Smit-McPhee gets top billing, and the baby-faced Australian more than holds his own against the relative veteran Fassbender, himself delivering his strongest performance in ages. With narration by Silas, but featuring flashbacks to Jay's life in Scotland, it's only in the final few minutes we learn whose story Slow West really is. However, it's both actors' film.
Oh, and fans of 'the Fass' will be delighted to know he does strip to his underwear in this, though a stained union suit might not be what you have in mind.