Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview
films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by
members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.
We know a few things about “Slow West”: It hails from the coasts of England by way of scraggly, forested New Zealand. It’s director John Maclean’s feature debut, a relatively quiet entry in the World Dramatic Competition program, and possibly the devastating upset of its category.
Film4’s site describes the film as taking place in frontier America at the end of the 19th century, where “a confrontation occurs in Colorado that would usually result in a duel to the death.” It’s here that drifter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) faces down with Scottish fugitive Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee). “Instead of killing him,” the synopsis reads, “Silas offers to protect Jay in exchange for money, and from there they embark on a journey fraught with peril, betrayal and violence.”
The movie marks Fassbender’s third collaboration with Maclean, the first two being the shorts “Man on a Motorcycle” (2009), which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the BAFTA award–winning “Pitch Black Heist” (2011). Elegant and snappy, “Pitch Black Heist” was a joy to watch: the short was a study in minimalism and grey-toned imagery; it starred Fassbender in his prime as one half of an expert burgling duo. As an actor, Fassbender has a remarkable capacity to fluctuate between a coldness that borders on brutality (see: “12 Years a Slave,” “X-Men: First Class”) and layered emotional complexity (“Fish Tank,” “Frank”), often bouncing between the two extreme (“Jane Eyre,” “Shame”). There’s no doubt that his performance will be one of the driving forces of “Slow West,” though there’s certainly something to be said about the other talent slated for the film.
The film also stars Kodi Smit-McPhee (who’s coming off a big year with “The Young Ones” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) directly opposite Fassbender, as well as the underrated Ben Mendelsohn (“The Place Beyond the Pines,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) as the outlaw named Payne, who tangles with Jay and Silas in the film. Though he cut his teeth on two previous collaborative efforts with Fassbender, “Slow West” is still Maclean’s first feature, and so it has the capacity to make or break his career.
The outside perspective of a relatively unknown and unproven British director is reason enough to get excited: With a steady hand and the triple threat of Fassbender’s versatile talent, Mendelsohn’s gruffly menacing visage, and Smit-McPhee’s swan-necked fragility at its disposal, “Slow West” has the potential to break out of its category as a classic Western.
Notably, “Slow West” is screening in competition at Sundance this year in the World Dramatic Competition program, alongside other buzz-worthy films such as Ariel Kleiman’s “Partisan” and Kim Farrant’s “Strangerland.” Ahead of its premiere at Sundance, “Slow West” has been picked up for theatrical and VOD distribution by A24 and DirectTV, which could be interpreted as a solid indication of potential commercial appeal. (The companies previously partnered on the acquisition of 2013’s “Enemy” as well as 2014’s “Life After Beth.”)
Whether it will be a triumph among critics and audience members, however, remains to be seen. The buzz is still relatively quiet this early on, and its reception at its premiere could change everything — but considering its stellar cast, compelling premise, and the fact that it’s already landed U.S. distribution, “Slow West” may just shape up to be among the hits of the festival.