Salvation a Powerfully Austere Western
Reunited with his wife and son after eons apart setting up a new home in the middle of the American frontier, Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is left a ragged shell after a crushing tragedy befalls his family on the trip to his and his brother Peter’s (Mikael Persbrandt) farm. Revenging himself against those who wronged him, the former soldier now finds himself the target of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a notorious cutthroat who lords over the local township as if it were his own personal fiefdom.
The locals, urged on in no small part by the curiously calm Keane (Jonathan Pryce), a town elder and moneyman who holds an inordinate amount of power for a person of his position, have decided to turn their back on Jon, refusing to help him or his brother in their fight against Delarue. Only the mute – if still beautiful – Madeline (Eva Green), the gang leader’s hardened financial guru, seems up to the challenge, the woman secretly maintaining an old grudge that she’s only now ready to act upon.
There is little that could be called different or new about Danish director and co-writer Kristian Levring’s (Fear Me Not) austere Western The Salvation. It’s a revenge-fueled saga into the dusty plains, the sagebrush caked in blood and the floorboards littered with bits of flesh left after the fires have burned the buildings to ash and the revolvers have run out of bullets to fire. Jon’s story could very well have been told by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner, the mechanics of his narrative as comfortably familiar as a broken-in leather saddle sitting atop a gracefully aging stallion.
The outright unabashed familiarity of Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen’s (Love Is All You Need) script is a problem, lessening the dramatic impact of much that occurs because of this. I knew early on exactly what it was Jon was going to do and what the road would be to get him there, the only questions just how exactly the final confrontation between him and Delarue would be staged and little else. While the characters, namely Madeline, have their respective secrets, the movie itself holds very few of its own, and as such my emotional investment in the outcome wasn’t strong.
Yet I liked The Salvation. Heck, I maybe even loved it. Mikkelsen – a terrific actor in everything from television’s “Hannibal,” to the James Bond adventure Casino Royale, to the outstanding period epic A Royal Affair, to what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance in The Hunt – is superb, bringing a level of pain and pathos to Jon that is all-encompassing. He gives the movie its charge, and while his intentions are never in doubt, how he gets to where he is going is consistently fascinating, all thanks to his dynamic, fearlessly stubborn performance.
Green is also excellent, bringing a level of majesty to her portrait of a woman scorned, quietly looking for the right moment to enact her revenge even though she doesn’t utter a single word. She proves once again to be one of the more underrated, intriguingly multifaceted character actresses working today. In many respects I’d have been hugely curious to see what a story entirely about Madeline’s journey and what it was that brought her to Delarue’s doorstep might have theoretically looked like, part of me a little sad this wasn’t the picture Levring set out to make.
Additionally, the filmmaker does a consummate job bringing things to life visually, paying deft homage to the masters of the genre while at the same time crafting his own signature esthetic that’s inhumanely, even vulgarly authentic. Jens Schlosser’s (Deliver Us from Evil) seedily dexterous cinematography is adroitly juxtaposed against Jørgen Munk’s devilishly effective production design, Kasper Winding’s (The Riot Club) ethereally refined score adding just the right touch allowing things to hit home with a ferocity they otherwise likely wouldn’t have.
It’s likely impossible to make a case that The Salvation goes anyplace Western aficionados have not seen before. Whether Wayne or Eastwood, Cooper or Costner, the footsteps Mikkelsen’s Jon are treading in aren’t exactly fresh. At the same time, Levring’s affection for the genre is apparent, while his handling of the tale’s central moments pack a powerful punch that knocked me upside the head leaving me just to the right side of awestruck. This is a fine film indeed, one I’ll happily ride along with again with no hesitation whatsoever.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)