Slow West, an epic frontier story, is set in Colorado but was shot in the South Island.

In the closing moments of this deliciously unpredictable Western, set in Colorado but shot in the South Island, the camera revisits the scenes of the various killings that have punctuated the action.

There are plenty of them - the body count is around a dozen and a half, though most of them pile up in a climactic shootout that is equal parts absurdist and horrifying - but the tone of the sequence is more elegiac than grisly. "There's much more to life than just survival," one character tells us at the end, but he's quoting someone else, who is dead. And that's not the half of the irony that saturates the line.

A frontier story whose epic scope and title both belie its concise running time, Slow West, the feature debut of musician-turned-film-maker Maclean, is infused by a poetic, even mythic, sensibility that is as important as story; narrative plausibility falls off the horse a bit, but mostly manages to get back on.

The action and dialogue are often as cryptic and allusive as the characters. "In a short time, this will be a long time ago," says one character, though we later realise he's sounding a warning; in another sequence, a trio of French-speaking singing Congolese seem to have materialised in the middle of an open plain.

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The film's main character is Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee, who at 12 played Viggo Mortensen's son in the post-apocalyptic thriller The Road), so doleful and dorkish you sometimes feel like slapping him

He's on the trail of his sweetheart, Rose (Pistorius) and her father who have fled the Highlands for the New World for reasons that become apparent only slowly. The youngster teams up, not at all willingly, with trail-hardened cigar-chomping frontiersman Silas Selleck (the always watchable Fassbender), and we suspect before Jay does that the self-appointed chaperone has an agenda of his own.

The action unfolds as a series of riveting set pieces: the pair are caught in the crossfire of a botched robbery at a trading post; they literally stumble into a gang whose leader (Mendelsohn) has an obscure shared history with Silas; an absinthe-drinking session has unfortunate consequences.

The slow, westward journey the film documents has a specific destination but, as with most journeys, getting there is as important as arriving. There's no denying the trip is engrossing, even enthralling - Robbie Ryan's ravishing cinematography does full justice to the Mackenzie Country landscapes - but as a film it's hampered by a stylistic self-consciousness that feels a bit smart-arsed.

For all that, the abrupt changes in tone - Peckinpah one minute, Coen brothers the next - keep the viewer off-balance and forbid easy mythologising: the trading-post shootout, for example, is already saturated with moral complexity, but Maclean has a final flourish that hits the solar plexus.

At times, such as when he chucks in a visual gag about rubbing salt into the wound, his playfulness runs away with him and becomes an end in itself. But this is an often ferociously entertaining and substantial debut.

Slow West

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: John Maclean
Running time: 87 mins
Rating: R13 (violence, offensive language)
Verdict: Style trumps substance in a moody, unpredictable Western.

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- TimeOut

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