REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
Back in 1964, Italian director, Sergio Leone abandoned making historical epics and put his distinctive stamp on the Western genre. He cast Clint Eastwood as the iconic Man With No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Back then, Eastwood was a relatively obscure television actor, best known for playing Rowdy Yates, an impetuous ramrod on television’s “Rawhide.” These spaghetti Westerns catapulted Eastwood to international superstardom. They also ushered in a new subgenre, the so-called revisionist Western. These films jettisoned the cinematic convention of depicting the American West in an idealized fashion. Instead, these films embraced the gritty reality of life on the frontier.
Now comes “The Salvation,” from Danish filmmaker, Kristian Levring. Its unrelenting harshness makes some other revisionist Westerns seem like they’re set in some sort of Utopian wonderland by comparison.
An opening coda references the German-Danish War of 1864. When Denmark’s Frederick VII died without natural issue, a succession crisis arose over the long-disputed duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The combined armies of Prussia and Austria seized the opportunity to invade Denmark. They handed a crushing military defeat to their overmatched neighbor.
“The Salvation” was shot predominantly in South Africa, but set circa 1871 in Black Creek, a decrepit frontier town somewhere in the American West. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is a peace-loving homesteader. He and his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) , are both veterans of the German-Danish War of 1864. They have come to America in hopes of finding a better life. The immigrant siblings have struggled to find a foothold in this challenging new land.
Jon has not seen his wife, Marie (Danish singer/songwriter/ record producer, Nanna Øland Fabricius, whose musical nom de plume is Land Ho), in years. He has never even met his young son, Krestan (Toke Lars Bjarke), who was born after Jon departed Denmark. Now, Jon has accrued enough money to bring his family to America. Marie and Krestan have made the arduous trek by boat from Denmark to American seaboard, then by train to Black Creek. There, they plan to reunite with Jon. Alas, he has little opportunity to play the role of doting husband and father.
The newly reconstituted family is joined on a stagecoach by two ne’er-do-wells, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Lester (Sean Cameron Michael). Newly released from prison, they quickly become inebriated. They insist that Marie take a swig from their bottle of booze. At her husband’s suggestion. Marie begrudgingly takes a token sip. When Paul starts groping Marie, Jon pointedly objects. When Lester pulls his gun on Jon, what can he do? In a display of consummate skill, Jon kicks the gun out of Lester’s hand and pulls his own revolver. However, Lester grabs Krestan and puts a knife to his throat. After seemingly gaining the upper hand, Jon is booted from the stagecoach.
These curs murder Krestan, then rape and kill Marie. It’s a humiliation for Jon that evokes memories of his wartime experience. He tracks down the malefactors, then shoots both of them to death. The vignette portends a storyline, which is adroitly crafted.
Unfortunately, ir turns out that one of Jon’s victims is the brother of a notorious gangleader, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). As a colonel in the U.S. Army, Delarue had brutally slaughtered countless Indians to clear the land for the rapacious appetites of Manifest Destiny.
Now, Delarue has assembled a fiercesome gang with a no-nonsense chief enforcer (Eric Catona). As evidenced by the vestigial remnants of their Army uniforms that his subordinates still wear, like Delarue, they were also soldiers in the U.S. Army.
Black Creek has a rudimentary civil government. The local undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce) has been elected as mayor. The town’s minister, Mallick (Douglass Henshall), doubles as its sheriff. He simultaneously wears a clergyman’s collar and a lawman’s badge simultaneously. However, they are intimidated by Delarue and succumb to his demands to pay a monthly protection fee.
Delarue demands that the authorities turn over his brother’s murderer or he will lay waste to Black Creek and systematically annihilate its population. To demonstrate that he’s not bluffing, Delarue shoots the old woman (Vanessa Cooke), a double amputee (Grant Swanby), and just for good measure a random man (Theo Geldenhuys).
Mallick is faced with a moral dilemma. He decides that there is no alternative to capturing Jon, then surrendering them to Delarue. What chance does he have against Delarue and his desperadoes?
Director Levering, and his writing partner, Anders Thomas Jensen, have authored a screenplay, which is model of storytelling efficiency. The film has an exceptional litany of cleverly conceptualized, crisply executed hyperviolent scenes packed into its truncated running time. It is supremely ironic that Levring was an original signatory to Dogme 95. The manifesto had foresworn the use of weapons, murder, and genre films.
“The Salvation” pays homage of some of the greatest Westerns of all time. A protagonist, who tries to abandon his violent past, but is forced by circumstances into deploying his gun-fighting skills. That evokes Alan Ladd in the Oscar-winning film, “Shane.” Townsfolk, who cravenly abandon a heroic figure, leaving him to square off against a gang of killers by himself. That scenario is straight out of “High Noon.” That film garnered an Academy Award for its star, Gary Cooper, and in three other categories. A bloody denouement, which is the culmination an escalating cycle of vengeance. That recalls another Oscar recipient, “Unforgiven,” with Clint Eastwood as its star and director.
In addition to elements that may be considered derivative, “The Salvation” contains many original aspects, not ordinarily found in Westerns. There is a pointed attack both on the hypocrisy of organized religion and the venality of corporate greed. The film does an excellent job of capturing the dynamic of a fledgling town fighting to sustain itself. It provides an astute understanding of the ubiquity of danger in everyday life.
With his prominent cheekbones and piercing stare, Mads Mikkelsen is a reigning star of Danish cinema and television. He has garnered accolades and critical plaudits for his performances in such Danish films as “After the Wedding,” “A Royal Affair,” and “The Hunt.” As the villain, Chifre, in the remake of the James Bond vehicle. “Casino Royale,” he came to the attention of a world-wide audience. In “The Salvation,” Mikklesen embodies an unmistakable Nordic sangfroid. It makes him ideally suited for his role.
Playing a character, whose mind has become unsettled, Jeffrey Dean Morgan exudes a menacing quality. It pervades the entire film.
As Madelaine, the widow of Delarue’s brother, Eva Green presents another pivotal character with a compelling back story. As a child, she had been abducted by Indians, who cut out her tongue, leaving her mute. They also left a scar across her lips, which marred her otherwise beautiful face. Madelaine also has a double-armed crucifix tattooed on her temple. Who put it there-a gang of marauding Hell’s Angels bikers? Now, Madelaine savvily operates the business of the Delarue gang. Since Madelaine has no dialogue, we are left to wonder what she is thinking. How will she ultimately factor into the battle royale between Jon and the Delarue gang?
Kudos to casting agent, Christa Schamberger. She has found some fascinating faces to fill even tertiary and quaternary roles. This includes members of the Delarue gang, the pipe-smoking octogenarian proprietress of the town’s general store cum saloon, and her callow grandson (Alexander Arnold).
Cinematographer, Jens Schlosser, makes excellent use of the vistas of South African to simulate the American West. These visuals are buttressed by production designer, Jorgen Munk. He provides sets for Black Creek, the spare home occupied by Jon and Peter, as well as an apparent ghost town, iccupied by the Delarue gang. The score by Kasper Winding enhances the film’s darkly atmospheric quality.
“The Salvation” draws elements from some great sources, then reshuffles them and adds it own original twists. The result is a riveting Western that rivals some of the genre’s best.
**** R (for violence throughout) 100 minutes In English and occasional Danish with English subtitles
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 features films a year. He welcomes at firstname.lastname@example.org.