It’s probably safe to say that there aren’t nearly enough westerns being produced these days – by way of a depressing example last year’s sole wide release was A Million Ways to Die in the West – but thankfully 2015 is already looking up for fans of the genre. The Salvation played to critical acclaim earlier this year, and we still have The Hateful Eight, Jane Got Her Gun and Bone Tomahawk to look forward to. Even better? There’s an excellent western playing in limited theatrical release right now.
Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a Scottish teen newly arrived in the uncharted American West in pursuit of the girl he loves. She and her father had been forced out of their homeland after an altercation, and Jay is intent on finding her again. The frontier is a dangerous place in the 1800’s – something Jay’s handbook for immigrants in the New World neglects to tell him – and when a shifty outlaw named Silas (Michael Fassbender) saves his life Jay hires the man to help guide him to his heart’s destination. The plan works well until it doesn’t.
Slow West, the feature debut of writer/director John Maclean, features a multitude of familiar western beats – eccentric characters, tensely-crafted gunfights, beautiful landscapes – but it executes them with a fresh, exciting attitude, an air of melancholy and an unexpected sense of humor.
Silas narrates the tale allowing us his insight into not only Jay’s actions and motivations but also his own, and one of the results is that it becomes an odd take on our hero from an outsider’s point of view. He’s most definitely not a hero, but this slight peek behind the ruffian’s veil adds to the dynamic between the pair. There’s deception and mistrust aplenty, but time and proximity work to create the near beginnings of a begrudging friendship.
The pair’s journey is the film’s focus, but along the way we’re given glimpses of Jay’s time with Rose (Caren Pistorius) back in Scotland as well as snippets of her present. We also meet some less friendly faces including a gang of true thugs led by an against-type Ben Mendelsohn as the villainous Payne. Just kidding, Payne is completely and utterly Mendelsohn’s type – a peculiar bad guy with a love of conversation and enormous fur coats – and he puts a face to the film’s otherwise hazy menace.
Maclean keeps his story moving forward, but the expected action is occasionally interrupted by dream sequences and dollops of surprisingly dark humor. Both should feel out of place in a western, but they fit seamlessly into the film’s mood and atmosphere. The script is deserving of credit for that blend, but it’s aided immensely by the two lead performances.
Smit-McPhee’s Jay is a determined innocent focused on an end goal with little concern or acceptance of what lies between it and him. He’s something of a straight man at first, but a shy, nervous humor arises showing a comedic subtlety he’s been unable to express in his more purely dramatic roles. Fassbender meanwhile balances the serious and the slyly sarcastic well, a mix he’s displayed previously as the X-Men films’ Magneto.
Slow West is a curiously engaging, beautifully-shot western that builds a strong narrative with some unusual turns. The action is sporadic but impactful culminating in a third act that delivers visceral thrills, dramatic weight and one hell of an unexpected laugh.
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Fantasy films, as opposed to westerns, have seen no such shortage at the cinema. They’re usually based on literature – either actual classics or YA fiction – and the new VOD release, Forbidden Empire, is no exception. And happily, it falls under the former category.
Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) is an English cartographer on a self-appointed mission to chart previously unexplored regions of Transylvania, and it’s not long before he hears about a mysterious village with a secret. It seems a young priest standing witness over a dead girl’s body in the town’s church barely escaped with his life when the girl rose from the dead. It seems she’s a witch controlling a revolving door into the bowels of hell, and while most men would turn the other way Jonathan sees this as an opportunity.
He arrives in the village with something of a flourish – well, he arrives in a puddle of mud anyway – to find a community living in terror. A horned creature roams the woods, evil seeps from the church walls and not everyone is being truthful with the new visitor.
Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 tale (“Viy”) has reached the screen before – most notably in Mario Bava’s loosely adapted 1960 thriller Black Sunday – but director Oleg Stepchenko’s equally loose film is the most elaborately produced version yet. The English lead is an effort to expand the story and, most likely, expand the potential audience, but Flemyng also brings a welcome goofiness to the otherwise dark and fantastical proceedings.
Those fantastical elements are where the film truly shines. CG and practical effects are used throughout to bring all manner of creatures to life, and the creative variety is staggering when compared to Hollywood’s plague of digital sameness. The highlight here is a dinner scene where Jonathan witnesses the diners transform into hellish beasts of fresh originality and razor-toothed menace.
Unfortunately that highlight is where the film peaks – and it comes in the first half. At over two hours the movie runs far too long for the story it’s telling. Time spent on the woman Jonathan loves, not to mention her easily angered father (Charles Dance), is unnecessary filler that adds little if anything to the narrative. That part of his life, those motivations, are distractions here that eat up precious screen-time. The village-set shenanigans feature some padding as well that serves to confuse viewers with players who never earn their distinction.
Forbidden Empire is too long, too convoluted and unable to hold interest in its narrative. There are some laughs, and the visuals are enough of a reason to give it a watch, but the film as a whole becomes a mostly forgettable mash of entertaining effects and dull interactions. The film ends with the promise of a sequel presumably continuing Jonathan’s map-making adventures elsewhere, and if the filmmakers can rein in the less essential parts of their storytelling I’ll be excited to see what monstrosities they dream up next.