We don’t get to see a great deal of Westerns in the cinemas nowadays, but when we do, in my experience, they’ve tended to be of a very high standard, a trend The Salvation happily continues. Non-American westerns are nothing new but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a Danish western before, what would we call that, an Open Sandwich Western? The Salvation makes its European roots integral to the plot too, focusing on a Danish settler in the US towards the end of the 19th century.
Being a high profile Danish film, there’s a good chance it’ll star Mads Mikkelsen, which it indeed does. Like last year’s outstanding The Hunt, this finds Mikkelsen joining forces with another former Dogme 95 director, in this case Kristian Levring (The King is Alive). Also like The Hunt, The Salvation bears little resemblance to that minimalist movement, happy to employ any modern techniques it wishes to enhance the story. Mikkelsen is an actor whom the more I see him in the further he ascends my mental list of favourite working actors. This gives him another choice role to work with; he isn’t just putting his spin on the Eastwood archetype. He is a former soldier forced to return to his violent past but he has a huge range to go through, at points going from quietly badass to helplessly desperate in a matter of minutes. Even when he’s in full action mode, Mikkelsen conveys a reluctance in having to behave this way.
Danish-ness aside, The Salvation begins like a rather typical if effective western story. Jon (Mikkelsen) has been living in America for some time, his wife and son have now come to join him. After collecting them from a train station, he finds himself sharing a coach back to town with two deeply unpleasant characters. In the chilling scene that follows, they make their intentions clear, and soon Jon is thrown out of the coach. Running with all the strength he can, he tracks it down later that night but it’s too late, his wife and son are both dead.
So it all looks to be setting up a standard revenge narrative, a former soldier’s family are murdered, he goes on a quest to find and kill the men who did it. Except that happens within minutes. The bad guys are still hanging around when Jon arrives and he wastes no time in immediately taking them out. Where so we go from here you might think? The Salvation is not just a predictable tale of one man’s revenge, it’s more about the consequences of it; the effect that act has on the growing yet lawless society in which he lives.
One of the murderers turns out to have an even more despicable brother called Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a feared local gang leader who commands monthly ‘protection’ money from the town mayor (Jonathan Pryce). He threatens the townsfolk with more death and fines if the culprit is not found. The film captures the group mentality of the townsfolk, and the fear the ruthless and volatile Delarue instils in them startlingly well with another shocking scene.
When again the story might now look to make their search for Jon the primary plot point, it moves along at a lightning pace. It appears they all deduced he was responsible without much difficulty and are gunning for him the moment he rides back into town.
All the film’s characters feel fresh and fully formed; from Pryce as the town’s cowardly undertaker-cum-mayor, Douglas Henshall as its slimy sheriff, to Jon’s sturdy, loyal brother (Mikael Persbrandt). Jeffrey Dean Morgan hasn’t made much of an impression in anything since Watchmen but he has a blast here as the suitably loathsome Delarue. Rounding out the international supporting cast is another striking turn from Eva Green as his dead brother’s widow. She doesn’t say a word in the entire film (her tongue has been cut out) yet expresses a great deal. With one very well placed shot, Levring alters our whole perception of her character by the simple act of her turning her head.
The Salvation employs a number of well-worn western troupes, but it never comes across as clichéd. It’s very well shot, conveying the sometimes beautiful, sometimes dirty and sometimes frightening sides of the western environment. It gains more stand-out factor by employing anonymous South African locations rather than any expected US landmarks too. The west it portrays is a brutal place, but it’s never excessive. There are hints of a society building threaded within the main narrative, ‘sticky oil’ is appearing and no-one knows quite what to do with it yet, but some think it might be worth something. The Salvation’s cocktail of Euro-arthouse character drama and American action movie beats drives a propulsive narrative building towards an explosive finale. It’s an almost perfect blend of old-school western storytelling and modern filmmaking sensibilities that should appeal to long-time fans and newcomers to the genre.
*Fun Fact: In Korea, this has been given the wildly unimaginative title of ‘Western Revenge’