Just about every possible narrative has been covered by the Western genre over the years. It is one of the oldest of film genres. 21st Century cinema has seen a selection of outstanding revisionist westerns, including films like No Country for Old Men that fit into the post WWII-set sub genre.
But, through bold productions like HBO’s Deadwood and Kelly Reichhardt’s Meek’s Cutoff the 19th Century west is still dared to be explored. The Salvation, written and directed by one of the four signatories of the Danish Dogme95 film movement, Kristian Levring, is a new addition. It is a fantastic-looking, old-fashioned but distinctly European flavoured brand of the bloody and brutal revenge western, with an authentic recreation of the 1870’s American Wild West on the cusp of an oil boom. It is an efficient and thrilling 90 minutes.
Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is a peaceful Danish settler who has been living for seven years with his brother Paul (Mikael Persbrandt) in America, building a life in preparation for the arrival of his wife and young son. We meet Jon as he is waiting at the train station, both excited and nervous about their arrival. America is unforgiving, and he is a changed man. On the way into town by stagecoach Jon and his family are held at gunpoint by their fellow passengers. Gangsters, and one of whom is fresh out of prison. Jon’s wife and son end up killed and his violent retaliation unleashes the fury of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a notorious gang leader and land baron, and brother of one of the murderous antagonists. Delarue kills several of the local townspeople when the sheriff fails to apprehend his brother’s killer, and when Jon and Peter arrive in town they find themselves betrayed by the cowardly locals and forced to hunt down and face the outlaws alone.
What is immediately striking about this film is the way it looks. I loved the way it was shot, and the unease that is drawn out of open spaces. There isn’t a great deal of dialogue, Levring lets his stunning and cleverly-edited visuals do a lot of the work and the scored punctuations are well-judged. The rugged beauty of the frontier, and the details in the way people lived during this time, create an absorbing atmosphere that alone make this a satisfying film. We never see any Native Americans here, as they aren’t the interest. Delarue feels the townsfolk owe him for having driven the natives away from the region, and he commands obedience with his pistol and a posse. Jon and Peter, both soldiers back in Demark before re-settling, also have a violent past. While Delarue has built a gang and used intimidation and fear to sponge off the town and purchase surrounding land in preparation for the oil boom, Jon has left behind the war and journeyed ahead to America to build a life for his family so that he can settle down.
Mads Mikkelsen is a captivating stoic performer, and is a complete badass in this. The relationship between Jon and Peter is so believable you would have thought Danish heavyweights Mikkelsen and Persbrandt were actual brothers. Eva Green, whose character is mute and doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, is suited just fine, but it is the underrated Jeffrey Dean Morgan who elevates his cliched villain into a magnetic presence.
There is no doubt The Salvation is in debt to some of the genre pioneers in Sergio Leone and John Ford, and it ticks a lot of the standard conventions. Western aficionados will recognise the story, but propelled by a talented cast and a fine director this is a skilful exercise in genre subversion that manages to feel fresh. Sequences are punctuated with silence and staging often drawn out to elevate tension, and yet due to the film’s simple revenge plot, plenty happens. There is a mud-drenched rescue on the cover of a rainy night that is tremendously gripping and the final shootout is unpredictable and superbly directed. The Salvation is another gem that has been held from a theatrical release but 2015 is shaping up to be the year (the first of many?) of the direct-to-VOD gems.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Kristian Levring
Writer(s): Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Persbrandt, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eva Green, Jonathan Pryce
Runtime: 92 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: DVD and Digital May 6, 2015