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‘Slow West’: Respecting while tweaking the Hollywood horse opera

By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service

It’s always entertaining to see a genre tweaked, at least when it’s done with the proper mix of respect and madness at work in “Slow West.”

It’s a Western, as the title suggests, but it’s a weird one. John Maclean’s first feature as a writer and director is skewed in all the right places, including the setting, where New Zealand stands in for the American West, but only sort of.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lands there, 16 years old and far from his home in the Scottish Highlands. He’s searching for Rose (Caren Pistorius), who he fancies is his sweetheart. She and her father have built a house in Colorado, but what Jay doesn’t realize is that Rose and her father have a bounty on their heads.

Everyone else knows it, including Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced bounty hunter who gets Jay out of trouble, finds out where he’s headed and informs him that he, Silas, will now be Jay’s guide and be paid for his efforts.

And off they go.

Obviously they must encounter obstacles along the way. Chief among them is Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of a gang also on the hunt for Rose. He shows up one night at the camp Silas and Jay have pitched with a bottle of absinthe. They get drunk enough to sleep through a torrential downpour until the flooding threatens to drown them.

Silas, we learn, used to work for Payne before setting out on his own. Payne would like him back, but Silas has no interest.

It all sounds like garden-variety Western business. Except that Payne is dressed in an enormous fur coat that would look ridiculous on anyone else. Mendelsohn, though, is able to give Payne such a dangerous vibe that no one would ever think to make fun of his get-up.

Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) is always great, and while his role is small here it’s choice, and the scene between he and Fassbender — also terrific — is so good you wish they had more time together on-camera. But they’re men on a mission, and when that mission involves money, there isn’t a lot of time for chatting.

Rose and her father, despite being on the run, have built a nice little home smack dab in the middle of an open field. The setting is beautiful — the whole movie is. Maclean’s eye is stellar, in terms of framing and composition, as well as selection. We’re used to scorched earth and parched throats in Westerns. This landscape offers different dangers, and its own majesty.

In the end, no matter how offbeat, this is a Western, so we know a shootout is coming. When it does, Maclean holds nothing back. He stages it with wit and style; one of the most satisfying parts is seeing Rose’s surprising expertise with a rifle. Poor old Jay never really knew what he was getting into.

At heart, it’s the story of Jay and Silas and their inevitable bonding. But Maclean gives this a tweak, too. Fassbender is compelling whenever he’s in a movie, including this one. Sure, his Silas wants the money, but he’s not beyond making a friend.

“Slow West” leaves a few plot points open — most notably why, exactly, Rose and her father are on the run — but that adds to the feel of a movie that offers plenty of off-kilter delights.

[s3r star=3/4]

A24 presents a film written and directed by John Maclean. Running time: 84 minutes. Rated R (for violence and brief language). Available on demand and opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre.