Several years ago Westerns saw a bit of a resurgence. It didn’t come close to matching the genre’s popularity of the 1950s and 1960s, but it was great to see the visions for Westerns from modern perspectives. We still get the occasional Western from time to time which brings me to “The Salvation”, a Danish revenge tale from co-writer and director Kristian Levring. The film tips its hat to several classic Western movie tropes, but at the same time it maintains an evocative and unique edge to it.
One of the film’s strengths is found in its charismatic lead Mads Mikkelsen. He plays Jon, a Danish settler and ex-soldier in 1870’s America. With the help of his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), Jon establishes himself and then sends word for his wife and son to cross the Atlantic and join him at their new home in the American West. But shortly after reuniting with his family, an encounter with two thugs ends with his wife and son being murdered. Jon tracks down and kills the thugs responsible.
But Jon doesn’t realize that one the dead killers is the brother of a ruthless gang leader named Delarue (played with grizzled gusto by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the husband of the physically and emotionally scarred Madalaine (Eva Green). Delarue makes it his aim to find and pay back his brother’s killer. This sparks a conflict with the revenge-fueled Jon that (literally) bleeds into a small town held hostage by fear of Delarue. The town’s weak-kneed sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and opportunistic Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) are little help and they leave Jon to fend for himself.
Mikkelsen is the perfect man for his role. Jon is stern and rugged but also reserved and soft-spoken. Mikkelsen has always been able to convey through expression and Levring often relies on that. The story takes its lead character to some pretty grim places, and a quick gander at Mikkelsen’s filmography will show he’s familiar with taking characters to grim places. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the burly, gravelly voiced Morgan who seems to be channeling a nuanced Jack Elam vibe. Morgan’s character chomps up scenes with a playful abhorrence and he’s a nice counterbalance to Mikkelsen’s Jon.
Another strong point is the revolving aesthetic that defines the film’s dry and dusty world. In shooting the movie Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser move between classic Western imagery and a type of visual hyperbole. At times the film looks as if it were plucked out of a Sergio Leone picture. Other times things look stylized and experimental. We see it in backgrounds, camera techniques, and color pallets.
One could say “The Salvation” is too generic and cliché, but I don’t think Levring’s approach is that simplistic. The film certainly borrows from or pays homage (depending on how you choose to look at it) to certain Westerns that came before it. Yet the film has a unique feel and an intense visual flair that goes along with its violent self-awareness. Mikkelsen shines, Morgan is a hoot, Eva Green is a boiling mystery. When put together as a whole it is a stylishly focused and concise movie which happily embraces its influences.
VERDICT – 4 STARS