There’s just too much artifice in Slow West

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      Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender. Rated PG.

      The Nice Try But No Cheroot Award goes to Slow West, a highly artificial genre piece that attempts to use New Zealand the way Italian director Sergio Leone subbed Spain for a mythical Southwest.

      Here, the filmmaker is Scotland’s John Maclean, better known for founding the Beta Band, although he did an innovative short in 2009, “Man on a Motorcycle”, starring Michael Fassbender. This surely enabled him to drag the happening Irish-German actor to the Antipodes, to play a cigarillo-chomping loner who initially has no moniker; it’s actually Silas Selleck, although the name Kevin Kline (re: Silverado) frequently comes to mind here.

      The taciturn horseman is traversing the hostile, bleakly beautiful territory of 1870 Colorado when he encounters a Scottish lad called Jay Cavendish (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee, a Jay Baruchel type with an uncertain Scots accent). With the paperback Ho! For the West!! as his only survival guide, the naive teen is looking for his true love. But, as we see in overused, sometimes pointless flashbacks, this Rose (Caren Pistorious) was never really his to begin with.

      During a frightful encounter with army irregulars out to kill Indians, Jay falls under Silas’s wing. Of course, he hasn’t glimpsed the “Wanted” poster the older man keeps unfolding for us to see, showing that Rose and her father are being sought for an accidental killing back in Scotland. (We also witness that event, although it’s never clear whose flashbacks we’re getting.)

      The whole premise is iffy, but it’s enough to suggest that this is probably why this mysterious tracker is unusually solicitous, and why he keeps crossing paths with a more colourful set of bounty hunters, led by the tricky Payne (Australian vet Ben Mendelsohn), who appears to have a complicated history with Silas. Here, we ride wildly into Sam Peckinpah territory, by way of Quentin Tarantino, and Maclean writes lacklustre dialogue and struggles to find a consistent tone for his film, which indeed feels slow for most of its 84 minutes.

      There are some well-staged set pieces, culminating in a shootout played more for laughs than tragedy. But the whole story seems randomly strung together, like a set of anecdotes spun by a grizzled traveller who’s never been anywhere but the pub.