You know, for a genre that is supposed to be dead, the Western has had so many “the West is dead” films. Seriously, the Revisionist Western is something of a niche culture has kept itself alive by latching onto the idea that it can give that genre a funeral as many times as it can, since the 1969 The Wild Bunch. And for the most part, it’s not like that genre has entirely failed us, given The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and even The Homesman all standout even amongst the best of the more orthodox Westerns from the 30s and so on. So I give The Salvation the benefit of the doubt on that factor…
I also don’t buy into a sort of too prevalent idea that the Western is a strictly American genre. Bullshit and a half. We have ourselves an entire branch of that genre basing itself in Italy and look at the classic to have come out of that era – The Good, the Bad, the Ugly is arguably THE Western for most people. So I wouldn’t even call that giving the Danish film The Salvation the benefit of the doubt.
And yet, here we have The Salvation and if it weren’t for the US release recently this year, I might have totally forgotten about it altogether as a revenge film, as a Western, or even as a vehicle for Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. All of which might be fine, especially the latter since Mikkelsen has been living off the fat of his praise for The Hunt in 2012-’13 and the hit TV series Hannibal (which I have not seen a single episode or even clip/trailer of, but am getting more and more close to giving a shot).
Brothers Jon (Mikkelsen) and Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish dodgers of war in the late 1800s who took their flight over to the American West. When we meet them, they’re at a train depot waiting for Jon’s wife and child (played by Nana Oland Fabricius and Toke Lars Bjerke respectively) to finally arrive to the West and meet with them for a nice family reunion. Peter goes on to add to Persbrandt’s fashion since The Hobbit of being shafted in terms of movie screentime by bidding Jon and his family ado and never being seen at all again in the film. As said reunited family begins to head to its new home altogether, the stagecoach they catch back happens to include two other bundles of trouble take the coach with them and spend the majority of the trip making incredibly unsavory remarks towards Jon and his wife. The rest of the trip is spent kicking Jon the hell out of the coach so that they could rape his wife and murder both of Jon’s family.
If you didn’t think that wife and son were doomed – the reason of me not bothering to remember their names being that they’re obviously, from the very moment that coach goes off, meant to be meat puppets of revenge for Jon – that Jon had a shot of rescuing and that that was the premise of the film, well, I wouldn’t scold you but I’d think you haven’t seen many dark Westerns because Jon catches up only so well after the fact of the savage murders.
And so if you thought that the revenge was Jon’s to have for the film and so the premise was his hunt for the men who took away his family, well, I’d be a lot more forgiving, but no, that ain’t it either. You see, Jon catches the men almost immediately and kills them on the spot without mercy.
The premise is the consequences of that revenge as it turns out that one of the men who Jon has killed is the brother of Delarue (the ever ruggedly despicable Jeffrey Dean Morgan), obviously the biggest and baddest around there, who has now decided to set his gang on one or the other: Either the local town or the killer of his brother that they will enthusiastically give up to avoid burning to the town. And Delarue intends to have his own “justice” witnessed by his sister-in-law, the widowed mute Madeleine (Eva Green).
And now is where the premise begins.
So, if you don’t get what I’ve been going at by such a lengthy synopsis, it’s that the movie takes a hell of a lot more time than it has right to to kick the hell off. I have barely even touched on the reason that the movie is called The Salvation to begin with and the way that theme is established feels so much like an after-thought as some social criticism that I think the movie actually aids by not having me refer to it any further.
What I would prefer to address is how everything else about the movie is not exactly bad so much as it’s just tired and tried as a generic trope. The cowardly townsfolk (including and especially its officials), the self-righteousness of its villains, the dismissing of womensfolk (in some tales leading to some interesting story points, in others leading nowhere), the hefty violence.
And oh how proud director Kristian Levring is of his violence and his Western tropes. In a genre is that now practically characterized by how many blood splatters it can collect in a frame of interrupting the quiet with the sound of a gun and the silence that follows is all different, The Salvation kind of seems convinced that its somehow able to shock us with its gruesome violence, but it’s kind of more of the same of that revenge tale genre with nothing behind it to make it stand-out with its own white noise.
It’s unfortunate because there are parts of The Salvation that try as best as it can to salvage itself. Jens Schlosser has a very interesting way of attempting to shoot this Western by refusing to bleach all of the color out of it as would be the norm (to characterize the dryness of the environment) but has it smeared looking whenever it rises above to make this atmosphere seem just as messy as it is dusty. It’s very eye-catching at points and certainly the source of some of the more thankful shots – like how astonishingly blue the night is as Jon chases for the carriage desperately in the opening or how the flames during the climactic gun battle between Jon and Delarue’s gang seems fixed in its own spot as a freckle of red and orange surrounded by the washed-out greens and browns. Mikkelsen as well has been better but he does well enough to deliver emotional checkpoints when its called for before using his screen presence to be the bigger badass between him and Morgan.
The only really unforgettable thing is Eva Green, who has been making ’14 her year like many others, providing a very tense source of anger and further depravity from and towards the other characters surrounding her. Without saying a word, she registers further than the film gets allowance on the merits of its surface screenplay that this is a darkened unsaved world and that there will be so many different things bad people will attempt to take advantage of.
But it doesn’t cover the film’s tracks in the mud and it doesn’t save The Salvation overall as a picture. There’s nothing to learn or gain and its value as entertainment can also be tapped from pictures that have long preceded it. Oh well. It seems just as well that Levring has some idea of the ingredients in a modern Western – the screenplay, the directing, and even Morgan and Jonathan Pryce’s otherwise unimpressive acting all give off that idea – and might some day give it another shot…