“Slow West” opens with a shot of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) staring up at the stars after migrating from the Scottish Highlands to America, likely taking comfort in the knowledge he still resides under the same sky. It’s the kind of dreamy image that frequently punctuates writer/director John MacLean’s transcendent folk tale, slightly aggravated as Jay is about the fact he must carry a gun with him in his new digs as the writer/director weaves a tale of lost love on the frontier in the tradition of westerns past, but wears it lightly in carving out a path of his own. Watched over by a world-weary gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who makes his presence known at first as the film’s wistful narrator before emerging physically as the 16-year-old’s grizzled protector, Jay’s journey is relayed in the same terms one would tell a child at their knee, sounding almost like a fairy tale if it weren’t so damned treacherous.
As we’re soon informed, Jay is deep in Colorado territory when Silas picks up his trail, but MacLean fashions a place we’ve never seen before on screen, envisioning the West not as a place of overt foreboding but rather one where random chance is responsible for as much of the danger as those who could be seen as perpetrating it. Perhaps that’s why Jay is such an ill-fit, led by the romantic notion of reuniting with Rose, a young woman with whom he shared tender, if platonic embraces out by the Scottish sea. Arriving unaware that Rose has actually had a bounty placed on her head since they last spoke, he’s firmly out of his depths in a place where logic tends to be a liability rather than an asset, quickly finding that people operating out of instincts shaped by desperation and self-preservation aren’t the most sensible sort.
It isn’t obvious at first why Fassbender’s Silas takes an interest in Jay, though the money he can pay him as a guide helps. But Maclean lays that mystery along with many other little ones that accumulate along the trail the two follow to where Rose supposedly has set up camp to build tension since encounters with fellow travelers are few and far between. What’s left is a taut and more than occasionally wondrous ride across the plains, haunted by memories of simpler times and spiked by moments of magical realism deftly pulled off by the first-time director who resists ever making things too precious. Armed with a wicked sense of humor, finding literal ways to pour salt into the wounds Jay suffers, and often throwing in details like exotic spices that you only realize later make the story as rich as it is, “Slow West” is contrary to its title as a rollicking adventure between the stoic Fassbender and cautious Smit-McPhee that ultimately moves in another way once the futility of Jay’s quest begins to take hold.
The feisty yet full-bodied entertainment MacLean has created is reflected in the film’s fantastic musical accompaniment from Jed Kurzel (“The Babadook”), full of nimble string plucking layered over elegant chord progressions, just one of many aspects of its technical virtuosity. The classic standoff, a standard of the genre, has been reimagined here in a brilliantly edited centerpiece which takes place in a provisions shop that gives each character involved, no matter how long they’ve been onscreen before it, their due. Then there’s the vividly realized and exquisitely composed cinematography of Robbie Ryan (“Ginger and Rosa” and “Last Days on Mars”) that allow the film’s more quiet moments to come to life, bringing out the colors in the forests Jay and Silas muddle through and the dusty pathways they traverse on horse. In the end, “Slow West” may be about a man who insists on taking the wrong path, but true to its affection for the contradictory, it shows the rewards of taking the road less traveled, relishing the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself.
“Slow West” opens on May 15th in Los Angeles and New York before rolling out to other cities in the coming weeks. It is also currently available on DirecTV.