Written and Directed by John Maclean
United Kingdom/New Zealand, 2015
After the film finished, writer and director John Maclean acknowledged how surreal it felt to be premiering a western at Sundance of all places. After all, John Ford filmed many of his classics in the state of Utah, making it a sort of mecca of westerns. This however is very different from the traditional western as it is seen through a foreign lens and with a postmodern knowledge. It calls to mind other revisionist westerns from this century such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition and Red Hill. The plot takes place in 1870 and follows 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has traveled from Scotland to the American west to find his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Accompanying him is a mysterious and formidable drifter, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender).
Kodi Smit-McPhee already has the physicality for the role, wearing suits far too big for him and looking scrawny. He adapts a fair Scottish accent and plays Jay with a tragic innocence that’s engaging to watch. Michael Fassbender gives you the feeling he’s having a lot of fun playing out the classic character of the drifter/bounty hunter. He completely sells the more badass aspects of Silas while allowing room for vulnerability to seep through. Ben Mendelsohn is one of the greatest go-to scumbags in the business, as no scumbag of his is similar to another in his hands. With limited exposition and dialogue, he creates a menacing villain in Payne. The first shot of him finds him on a horse surrounded by his gang, and he dons a gigantic furry coat. He doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t need to. You already know Payne is a dangerous person just from how Mendelsohn presents himself.
There’s a nice amount of wry tongue-in-cheek humor peppered throughout the film. Silas always has a cigar in his mouth, even when he (and the cigar) is drenched. Through an ironic accident, salt is literally poured on a wound at perhaps the lowest moment for the character it happens to. The dialogue from Maclean’s script is sparse but effective – each line giving insight to the character speaking. There’s a certain lyricism in how characters talk with each other. Jay approaches a man saying, “I come in peace.” He replies, “My ears hear your music.” before inviting him to sit down. The score by Jed Kurzel is a true delight of the film. It feels straight out of the period, and compliments both the romanticism and impending danger of the film’s American west.
This is precise and engrossing cinematography from DoP Robbie Ryan. Each shot feels deliberate in an exciting and inventive way. The decision to shoot the picture in 1:66:1 results in a lean and tighter frame, subtly dialing up the tension on screen. The shots certainly admire the landscape and romanticism of the west – New Zealand has plenty of photogenic ones to offer – but the cinematography is at its best when it examines the characters, and when Maclean stages tense moments in closeups. The compactness of the images creates tension and danger at the edge of each of frame, and you get the sense that any outburst of violence could occur at any moment. It also communicates to the audience that this is not the look and feel of the American west they are familiar with.
Some of the most striking imagery comes near the end. A fair amount of death occurs in the film as it heads to it’s nail-biting climax, and afterward Maclean cuts to shots of all the dead bodies throughout the picture. He has devoted an appropriate amount of time to a romanticized west, but in the final moments he reminds us how brutal and unforgiving it all really was.