JOHN MACLEAN proves himself to be a director to watch with this thoughtful, off-kilter western
Slow West (15)
Directed by: John Maclean
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann
Fife-born filmmaker and former Beta Band member John Maclean delivers on the promise of his short films Man on a Motorcycle and Pitch Black Heist with this darkly humorous, off-kilter and sporadically violent 1870-set western about a Scottish teenager on the cusp of adulthood who encounters a heap of trouble after running off to America in pursuit of the girl he loves.
Callow but naively courageous, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is woefully unprepared for life on the frontier, particularly the bevy of brutal bounty hunters who, like him, are also trying to track down Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father (Rory McCann). Unbeknown to Jay, his true love and her father have a price on their heads (the reasons for their flight from the Highlands are hinted at in economically deployed flashbacks), and the reprobates on Jay’s tail – led by a fur-wearing weirdo called Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) – view him as the most direct route to uncovering their location.
They have competition from another hired gun by the name of Silas (Michael Fassbender), who has befriended Jay for the same purpose. Silas’s moral compass, however, still points him in the direction of decency, despite the surrounding lawlessness. Becoming something of a protector for Jay and offering to chaperone him (for a price) through this dangerous landscape, Silas is like a grizzled Euro-riff on Clint Eastwood’s various western outlaws and Fassbender – stubble-faced and steely-eyed – plays him as such, dispensing deadly force only when called on to do so for his own survival, but taking no real pleasure in killing or mayhem. It is Silas who narrates the film, clueing us into his own duplicitous plan early on, but hinting at a fondness for the boy that at least suggests he has some empathy for Jay’s foolhardy endeavour, the romantic nobility of which seems tinged by a certain youthful delusion. Smit-McPhee – accent passable enough to avoid being a distraction – is good at conveying the latter, especially as the film wears on and the true extent of his tragic nature is gradually revealed. There’s a quite touching scene, too, of Silas teaching Jay how to shave that’s redolent of the father-son motifs frequently found in the genre.
Slow West is something of a meandering journey through a Euro-populated frontier society, with Jay encountering all manner of strange individuals, including a trio of French-speaking black singers, a desperate family of Nordic immigrants, and a German anthropologist by the name of Werner who is studying the elimination of the indigenous population. Werner is already all too aware of how this rapidly passing time will soon become the stuff of folklore – an idea Maclean circles back round to with the film’s final montage of characters killed in the preceding action.
Further disrupting traditional western tropes is Maclean’s decision to eschew widescreen cinematography in favour of a slightly boxier aspect ratio (though nothing quite as radical as Kelly Reichardt’s 2011 feminist western Meek’s Cutoff). With the film shot in New Zealand (presumably for budgetary reasons), the landscape also seems less familiar and consequently more reflective of how alien it is for its ethnically diverse characters (the New Zealand locations also arguably function as a comment on our own expectations of a genre that has been shaped as much by the iconography of spaghetti westerns as John Ford movies).
But the deviations from traditional western narratives also allow the bursts of lawlessness to create more impact when they come. An early hold-up in a general store is full of bristling tension and expertly choreographed gunplay, with Maclean demonstrating a masterful ability to unleash clearly orchestrated action in a confined space without resorting to cut-to-shreds editing and jerky camera movements to keep the energy up. He expands this approach in the film’s final showdown, which takes place on Rose and her father’s homestead, with the former proving herself handy with a rifle as Jay and Silas help her take on their would-be killers as they attack from the surrounding corn fields.
Filling this set-piece with narrative twists, evocative imagery and mordant humour (there’s a great salt-in-the-wound visual gag), there is a lot going on here, but Maclean never loses control or attempts to get too fancy, bringing the film instead to a satisfying close before it overstays its welcome. Indeed, it is one of the film’s many absurdist jokes that he offsets the ponderous promise of its title by keeping the running time to a tight 84 minutes, its slow-burning design again enhancing the explosive impact of its finale. What an ambitious and well-executed debut this is.
She’s Funny That Way (15)
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte, Jennifer Aniston
Peter Bogdanovich secured his place in the annals of film history with The Last Picture Show in 1971. Since then, this noted cinephile has run hot and cold, his astute knowledge of the art form no guarantee of creating something the equal of his myriad influences. His latest film – his first since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow – is a case in point. A screwball farce that harks back to his own What’s Up, Doc?, it comes full of cinematic references to Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it’s stuck in the past, relying on the kind of dated tropes Woody Allen’s worst work still holds dear.
Chief among these is the hooker with a heart of gold that Bogdanovich decides to build the film around. This is Izzy (Imogen Poots), whom we’re introduced to in the present day as a movie star giving a tell-all interview to a journalist (Illeana Douglas) probing her about her euphemistic claim to have once been a “muse” to a series of men, among them a prominent director called Albert Albertson (Owen Wilson). The fact that the interview isn’t terminated forthwith by a phalanx of sour-faced PR flunkies is an early indication that Bogdanovich isn’t too concerned with plausibility and, sure enough, he uses the excuse of farce to pile ridiculous coincidence upon ridiculous coincidence to little comic effect.
These coincidences mostly revolve around Izzy landing a part as a call girl in a new Broadway play being directed by Albert. He’s a former client who has recently given Izzy $30,000 to quit her job as an escort so she can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. When she subsequently walks in for the audition, he freaks out, more so when she blows everyone away with her insights into the character, particularly Albert’s wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn), who is starring in the play and urges Albert to cast her.
The play’s writer, Joshua (Will Forte), also falls for Izzy, little realising that she’s a client of his therapist wife, Jane (Jennifer Aniston), who has started treating a supreme court judge (Austin Pendleton), who is similarly obsessed with the girl. This whirlwind of wackiness (which includes Rhys Ifans as Delta’s co-star, who has his own reasons for championing Izzy’s casting) would be more bearable if it was funny in any way. Alas, none of the jokes really land and in the end a last-minute cameo from Quentin Tarantino – and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s producer credits – say more about Bogdanovich’s cinematic relevance than this film does.