(c) DMC Film / Film 4
The Beta Band were a Scottish group active from 1996 to 2004 whose songs showed a wide range of ideas and influences and incorporated a wide range of sounds and samples. Appropriately, if not very concisely, their Wikipedia entry describes their oeuvre as ‘folkatronic, experimental music, downtempo, indie rock, Scottish, folk.’ I quickly heard about the Beta Band because their drummer, Robin Jenkins, had attended the same high school that I had in Scotland and so a lot of people I knew were talking about them. But during the years that they were on the go, I never warmed to them. I found them a bit too self-consciously eclectic and improvised. Having a sound that seemed all over the place didn’t endear them to me, even if it was in the name of art.
Eleven years after they disbanded, I’ve recently listened to their double-album swan-song The Best of the Beta Band (2005) and I’ve decided that, actually, they were really good. Maybe I’ve matured and my ears have become better attuned to quality. Or maybe the Beta Band simply sound an awful lot better in retrospect, after a decade when the contemporary music scene has been dominated by the dire and ghastly Simon Cowell; and when the best new acts you can hope for seem to be ‘landfill indie’ guitar bands, whose best bits sound like the work of older and superior bands like Joy Division, the Jam and the Undertones and whose other bits sound like an anonymous sludge.
Now the Beta Band’s DJ, sampler and keyboard-player John Maclean has turned his hand to film-directing and he currently has a film on release, a western called Slow West. As you might expect from someone involved in Maclean’s old musical combo, it’s an eclectic affair. Its ingredients are more disparate than, say, the ingredients of those 1960s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood would ride into town, mumble a few words, smoke a few cigars and kill a few people. Slow West features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians; a pair of husband-and-wife Swedish bandits; a German social anthropologist who’s studying the Native American tribes; a bounty hunter masquerading as a clergyman; a haunted forest; some flashbacks to simpler, more innocent times in Scotland; and some slapstick comedy involving a washing line that wouldn’t have gone amiss in an old Laurel and Hardy movie.
Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate. He reins in – that’s a good phrasal verb to use when you’re talking about westerns – these elements and the result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but that nonetheless has a narrative that’s lean and linear. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, an innocent love-struck teenager who’s pursed the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic and across the 19th-century American West – where things become wilder and more dangerous the further west he goes. He ends up hiring a mysterious, hard-bitten and not-necessarily-honourable bounty hunter called Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, to act as his guide and guardian. It’s a wise move, as throughout the movie danger intrudes in a number of forms – other bounty hunters, outlaws, natives and not-to-be-trusted fellow travellers, all in possession of that volatile trigger-happiness that seems endemic to characters in western movies.
Actually, I read once that gunfights in the Wild West were rare because of the high price of ammunition and the low wages of the average cowboy. Shoot-outs like the one at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath The Wild Bunch (1969) would probably have left the survivors bankrupt.
Slow West has a fine cast. Fassbender is his usual dependable self and there are good performances too from Ben Mendelsohn as a shifty rival bounty hunter and Caren Pistorius as the girl whom Smit-McPhee is searching for. You also catch a glimpse of Alex Macqueen, who played the oily Julius Nicholson in Armando Iannucci’s caustic political sitcom The Thick of It, in the role of Smit-McPhee’s unsavoury uncle back in Scotland.
(c) DMC Film / Film 4
But Smit-McPhee gives the film’s most engaging performance. He’s memorably naïve and vulnerable – but stubbornly set in his ways. In fact, he pursues his romantic dream with a hapless and somehow Scottish determination that reminds me of a similarly dreamy, hapless, Scottish and determined male adolescent, the title character played by John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981). Yes, we’re talking Gregory’s Girl out west here. That’s how odd this film is.
In one of the film’s best sequences, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee get wasted at their campfire with a bottle of absinthe. Smit-McPhee goes for a wander, returns to the campfire and after a while realises that he’s sitting at someone else’s campfire. It’s the sort of anecdote that a teenage lad would delight in telling, bragging to his mates about how drunk he got the other night. The difference here is that the people whom the inebriated Smit-McPhee finds himself sharing a campfire with are ones who’d happily cut his throat.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, incidentally, first made his mark in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. I find this disconcerting. Why, it seems only yesterday that he was the little boy accompanying Viggo Mortensen through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing cannibals and other post-apocalyptic unpleasantness. But today, he’s the romantic lead in a western. God, they grow up so fast…
As you might expect from a film made by a musician, Slow West has a pleasingly lyrical feel to it. But it isn’t as bloody and violent as the last western made with major creative input from a musician, 2006’s The Proposition, which was scripted by Nick Cave (and was also directed by John Hillcoat). Slow West has a high body-count, admittedly, but there’s less viciousness involved than in The Proposition – people shoot each other, and people die, but often there seems a haphazard, accidentally quality to it all. Too many guns are being waved around by people who really don’t know how to use them. (This, of course, bears no resemblance to the situation in America today.)
It’s also a lot less grotty than The Proposition, a film whose verminous, lank-haired characters made you grateful that someone finally got around to inventing shampoo. Maclean even includes a scene where Fassbender shaves Smit-McPhee with a knife-blade – clearly this is a vision of the Wild West where the blokes have time for their personal hygiene and grooming.
Do I have any criticisms of Slow West? Well, the German character, Werner (Andrew Robertt), feels a little too similar to the one played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2011) – although he’s not onscreen for long, so it hardly matters. Also, while we never doubt that Fassbender’s character will eventually do the right thing, his transformation near the end to good guy, from morally-ambiguous guy, feels a little too abrupt and fast. But generally, watching Slow West is a near-flawless way to spend 85 minutes of your time.
I’ve always been a big fan of western movies and it’s irked me that, during the last three decades, the genre has almost petered out of existence. However, if filmmakers continue to make westerns very occasionally, and if the very occasional western that comes trotting along is as good as Slow West, I think I’ll be happy.