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Slow West

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The Western is expertly renewed in this modern minimalist take starring Michael Fassbender.

Slow West

Grade: A-

Director: John Maclean

Screenplay: Maclean

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), Michael Fassbender (12 years a Slave)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1h 24 min

By: John DeSando

“His spirit was true. There is more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life. Ho for the West.” Silas (Michael Fassbender, narrating)

On any pandemic day, getting out into the wide-open spaces is a therapy. Well, so is seeing a minimalist western, Slow West, beautifully photographed with plenty of non-virus space to breathe. Only, it’s filmed in non-polluted New Zealand and set in 1870. That’s therapy.

With Silas narrating, a small story of genre-specific questing and survival (see quote above) unfolds in a fascinating 84 minutes, replete with tropes like the sensitive, greenhorn kid, the jaded older companion, and the grizzled gang pursuing them. And a woman as the object of young Jay’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) pursuit, Rose (Caren Pistorius), is much more trouble than she looks.

Throw in some “Injun Slayers” and other disreputable types, and you have a typical Western that somehow seems fresh and up to date. This West may be slow, but it has the integrity evidenced in the opening quote and a clarity absent from our polluted, parlous times.

It’s possible the universal appeal of this oater comes from the French patois of the little Haitian band the two travelers encounter on the trail or that Silas sees Jay needs a “chaperone,” or that immigration is a major player in the Westward Ho. At any rate 150 years later, immigration still carries its romance and its injustice.

In addition, with the mention of Darwin, first time writer/director and former musician John Maclean makes certain we know the survival of the fittest was true in the wild West as it is in modern inequality times. Unlike great but bleak Westerns like Unforgiven or 3:10 to Yuma, Slow West reminds us of the beauty, promise, and danger of post-Civil-War migration to less than a promised land.

This worthy entry is helped from its cliché-bound story by Michael Fassbender’s tough survivor and Ben Mendelson’s soulless bounty hunter, Payne, both actors of grave presence who embody the contradictions of that promised land. A gentle yet powerful tale so oft’ told but never so new.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com.