In search of his fugitive girlfriend and her father, 16-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) heads west across the 19th-century American wilderness. Along the way, Jay meets Silas (Michael Fassbender), a mysterious traveler who protects him from the savage and lawless elements. But is Silas really watching out for Jay...or is he tied to the band of desperados tracking them? Every step west brings Jay closer to the truth-leading to an epic, bullet-laced showdown in this quintessential Western.
Although we don't see many new ones these days (and when we do, they're typically smaller indie types like this one), the western genre is still alive and well. The last several years have delivered some fantastic westerns. Like those of old, filmmakers from different countries have brought unique flavors and attributes with them. Australian-made 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' featured a stark realism to it, giving it a completely original feel, while the American-made remake of '3:10 to Yuma' went with the true blue classic western feel. No matter which type you like – the new feel or the classic feel – there's no denying that these newer contemporary Westerns have been solid well-made entertaining films. Like 'The Assassination of Jesse James,' Scottish-made 'Slow West' pays tribute to the classic westerns while adding a European sensibility – and not only does it totally work, it's a delight to watch.
Cody Smit-McPhee, who you would recognize from 'The Road' and 'Let Me In,' shares the leading spotlight in 'Slow West' alongside Michael Fassbender, whom you definitely know from the later 'X-Men' movies. Just as Christian Bale and Russell Crowe shared the focus of '3:10 to Yuma,' so do Smith McFee and Fassbender here.
We are initially introduced to Smit McPhee's character Jay, a teenage boy from Scotland who is making a solo journey across the frontier in search of the girl he loves. After an accident left her and her father wanted in Scotland, they fled the country for the promise of the west. Naïvely driven by emotion, Jay is a fish out of water in this dusty, dangerous and lawless land.
Just a few minutes into 'Slow West,' we are introduced to Fassbender's character, Silas. For quite a while, we don't know much about his character, but based on his actions, mood and words, we see enough to know that we can't quite trust him. He claims to have good intentions, but it's obvious that he fits into this land all too well and that he's capable of bad things. Immediately recognizing that Jay is a fish out of water, Silas sees this as an opportunity for making money. Without ever asking, he simply appoints himself as Jay's guide and bodyguard, but for a non-negotiable price. Not knowing how the west works, Jay immediately buys into it. Literally and figuratively. The second Silas demands money, Jay pulls out his wallet and hands it to him.
Silas' intentions are the only things that Jay doesn't know. Pretty early on, it's revealed to us, the audience, that the reputation of Jay's love and her father have followed them to the frontier. Not only are they wanted, but there's a major bounty on their heads – dead or alive. We get the suspicion that Silas may be after this bounty and that's why he's helping Jay, but we also learn that there are a lot of very bad men seeking this bounty. With Jay having told others about his intentions and his reason for being in the United States, he's a hot commodity for those bountyhunters, as he's the only one who knows where they reside.
'Slow West' has everything that you want from a slow-burning western. You get shootouts, quick-draws, and some very very bad guys. Going back to the "European sensibilities," it also doesn't feel the restraint of a movie that has to play by the rules of the established genre - meaning, at times, it does whatever it wants to do, be it something comedic, something off-topic, or even something completely unrelated and from "left field." Luckily, whatever it does, it does well.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Partnered with Lionsgate, A24 has placed 'Slow West' on a region a BD-25 and placed it in a single-disc blue Elite keepcase. Included is an Ultraviolet code. The cover art is absolutely awful, which is a tragedy considering that it's duplicated on the cardboard slipcase. The back of the art claims that this is a 2013 release, which isn't correct. When you pop the disk into your player, you're forced to watch an FBI warning and a Lionsgate vanity real before skippable trailers for 'Ex Machina,' 'Cutbank,' 'The Homesman' and 'Beyond the Reach.'
'Slow West' arrives on Blu-ray with a stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Although shot digitally, like the classic western 'Shane,' it features a 1.66:1 aspect ratio to mimic the old VistaVision appearance. Being a 25-gig Blu-ray disc, I had worried that the video quality would be riddled with problems. Although it's not perfect, it's definitely much better then the worst case scenario I was anticipating.
Like any classic western, 'Slow West' is shot with gorgeous precision. To our advantage, the picturesque imagery shows with great detail and rich clarity. Landscapes appear with the pleasant visual quality of postcards. The production's high-quality costumes feature fine textures and expected wear-and-tear. Smudged pores and stubble, individual hairs and buzzing gnats – it's all completely visible.
The only aspect that I didn't expect to see given such strong emphasis is the colorization. This isn't a complaint, but I'm not used to seeing such colorful westerns. You'll notice the vibrant green sprouts of grass in certain settings, as if the land was just washed over with rain and the tiny blades are spending the few following days above ground before turning brown.
My one complaint stems from a few nighttime scenes with funky contrast that results in should-be shadowy blacks appearing gray. Most of the time, the black levels and contrast are perfect, but a few of these sub-par shots show up. Aside from that, the video quality is wonderful. There's no noise, artifacts, nor aliasing.
'Slow West' includes a lone 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's as impressive as the video. Beginning with a voice-over that occassionally pops up throughout the film, the vocal track is the first element to stand out. There's a richness and clarity that couldn't possibly sound any better. As we leave behind the voice-over and step into the character's dialog, that same high level continues. Fassbender's roughened voice seems to have layers to it, while Smit-McPhee's has a very fittingly delicate nature about it. Dialog is never distorted, it plays within a natural range level and is even mixed properly throughout the channels. Off-screen voices are mixed to the appropriate surround speakers.
Continuing the usage of properly channeling sound throughout the space is the effects mix. The surround channels are quite a bit more active than most low-budget indie flicks. Environmental effects almost always rings out - be it an even breeze blowing through the trees and brush, wildlife howling or buzzing in the distance, or twigs snapping beneath feet creeping in the darkness. When it comes to effects, this is quite the lively audio track.
Much like Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's brilliant score for 'The Assassination of Jesse James,' 'Slow West' features a simple and modest score that's completely in line with the tone and feel of the film. Whenever present, Jed Kurzel's score fills the space in a very dynamic and balanced fashion.
'Slow West' created quite a bit of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Now that it's available on Blu-ray, I can vouch that it earned its positive reputation. Not only does it work as a standard western, but it also contains more than enough unique attributes to keep it from feeling like a cookie-cutter genre flick. Fassbender continues to show that he can tackle any sort of role, while Smit-McPhee proves that he was more than just a good kid actor. First-time feature director John Maclean (no, not the character from 'Die Hard') does a wonderful job establishing a constant tone and delivering some gorgeous imagery. The Blu-ray features stellar video and audio qualities and, despite contining just a pair of short special features, is an absolute treat - especially for those who enjoy solid westerns.