We're familiar with the notion that the American west was settled by scumbags and murderers, but one hopes they weren't as uniformly dreadful as the cast of John Maclean's startlingly original début feature Slow West. A harsh coming-of-age story set in a dreamlike, re-imagined, post-modern wild west, McLean's film manages to sidestep the arid ironies of most modern westerns on its way to far more interesting territory.
Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay Cavendish, a wide-eyed young Scot who arrives in mid-19th century America on a truly Quixotic mission.
The son of an overbearing laird, he upset his father by falling in love with a crofter's daughter called Rose Ross: she subsequently fled to America with her father, John, and Jay has come to the new world to find them. Armed only with a vague address and a six-shooter he seems most ill-at-ease with, Jay wanders west into bandit country on an exhausted-looking pony, pausing at night to lie by a fire and stare up at the indifferent, shimmering stars.
He's a hopeless dreamer, a giddy romantic whose terrifying naivety is a constant danger to himself and others. A jack rabbit loose among wolves is how Slow West's narrator describes him: he meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), a world-weary outlaw who will shortly come to the boy's aid.
When Jay stumbles on a party of irregular soldiers who are slaughtering an entire Indian tribe, apparently for sport, he's about to be shot himself when Silas intervenes, killing their leader and rifling his corpse for anything useful, even stealing his boots.
Jay is horrified, but this is the way of the west, a grim reality he takes an awfully long time to understand. Silas offers to guide him towards the forest where he thinks Rose and her father are living, but has a secret, ulterior motive. Because John and Rose Ross are wanted outlaws with a price of $2,000 on their heads, a handsome bounty Silas intends to collect when Jay leads him to them.
Meanwhile they journey on, through hills, plains and desert, and Jay is staggered by the cheapness of human life in this lawless, barbarous land. When they stop at a general store in the middle of nowhere, a desperate Swedish couple come in and open fire when the owner won't give them what they want for free.
And as Jay and Silas near their destination, things get really dangerous when an old acquaintance called Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) turns up with his hard-bitten, bloodthirsty gang.
All westerns refer to other ones: the genre is so overladen with iconic images and moments that they're impossible to ignore. Robbie Ryan's glorious cinematography sometimes evokes the great 1940s and 50s westerns of George Stevens and John Ford, and the film's tone at times verges on the arch revisionism of the Coen brothers.
But every time things get too grand and epic, John Maclean reminds us that while the western landscapes are magnificent, the humans scrabbling for possession of them most definitely are not. The settlement of the west was an unseemly land grab conducted in an atmosphere of nihilistic chaos, an event that Slow West dramatises in microcosm.
This terse and imaginative film culminates in a magnificently staged gunfight that manages to find something new in the oldest movie trope going. Michael Fassbender is perfect as Silas, a wily, watchful bounty killer whose moral compass has not been entirely skewed by the madness of the west. He's given precious little back-story, and sometimes seems more a symbol than a man, but Fassbender looks right on a horse, and has a canny knack of turning up in very interesting films.
So does Australian actor Ben Mendolsohn, who may one day play a good guy, but not any time soon. His wicked flourishes are hugely enjoyable here, as they have been so often of late.
Slow West (15A, 84mins)