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One Way to Die in the West: Slow West 

Wednesday, May 20 2015
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Scottishly, John Maclean's first feature is a brooder that can't keep from cracking itself up. It follows a wayward teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through 1800s Colorado (2000s New Zealand), chasing the girl he likes (Caren Pistorius) and not realizing that his gruff bounty-hunter guide (Michael Fassbender) wants to find her too, but for professional reasons. Maclean's insight is to treat all his characters as random players on the front lines of manifest destiny, half-consciously wondering if they're the butt of a cosmic joke. Sample dialogue: "East, what news?" "Violence and suffering. West?" "Dreams, and toil." Robbie Ryan's beauty-attuned cinematography gives us a gradual focus pull from the haze of romantic hope to the cutting clarity of disillusionment. Maclean's tone control isn't perfect; the point-of-insight moment in Slow West's climactic shootout seems like something Joel and Ethan Coen might have dared each other not to cut from an early draft. It's a gag, at the protagonist's expense, and it goes too far even for a film that culminates in a wheat-field whack-a-mole gunfight. But it's not wholly inconsistent, as other piquant bits include a felled tree pinning down the spread-armed skeleton of the man who chopped it down, and a bad guy played by Ben Mendolsohn as if trying hard not to burst into a Gary Oldman impression. Meanwhile Fassbender inherits the mantle of Western antihero archetype, as we always knew he would, and Smit-McPhee, by now a veteran of movie frontier treks, never puts a foot wrong. "Dry your eyes, kid, let's drift," says the elder in one of many quotables, expounding an unsustainable worldview. Their path proves to be a trail of bodies, through which the movie — no longer jesting — backtracks in silence just before it ends.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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