With his tough, chiseled face, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has one of world cinema’s best mugs. The actor carries so much of the weight of his many characters in his face, whether it be Hannibal Lecter’s suave cunning on television or anguished despair in his triumphant role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Naturally, as a stoic settler trying to get retribution on a bloodthirsty baddie in The Salvation, a pastiche to the westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone, Mikkelsen is magnetic, expressing deep hurt and pain with just a glower or grimace.
As recent Danish immigrant Jon, Mikkelsen’s bloodied and blistered face is a wall to show just how resolute he can be. Jon crossed the Atlantic with his brother (Mikael Persbrandt) in the 1860s with the hopes of making a living in a frontier town. He learned the customs and language, as did the wealth of emigrants who settled in Black Creek. The same day as his family arrives from Denmark, Jon’s wife and child are kidnapped and murdered in a stagecoach.
Jon remembers the faces of the murderers and gets his swift revenge. However, one of his marks is the brother of a moustache-twirling psychopath named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Delarue promises to usurp more land and shoot people randomly if the local townspeople cannot find the man who killed his brother. Living with Delarue and his power-hungry thugs is the dead brother’s wife, Madelaine (Eva Green), rendered mute after savages snipped her tongue.
The Salvation, shot in sunbaked South Africa, is one of the most striking westerns to hit the screen in a long time, even if its story is little more than the lead-up to a duel. Much of the film’s look and sound is an homage: the melodic guitar pays tribute to Ennio Morricone; the frequent framing of people standing outside between two posts a blatant allusion to the final shot from The Searchers. Director Kristian Levring is quite far from the Dogme95 film movement he joined back in the 1990s. He relies on digital alterations to bring harsh color to many sequences, whether it is the sandy oranges of a sweltering desert town or the faint blues of a nighttime landscape. Black Creek is a filthy place, with a barren, damaged landscape that recalls a revisionist European western more than the American West.
Levring’s western is filled with genre iconography – smoke blasting out of a train as it approaches a station, a gurgling river of oil. At certain points, though, you wish the director would let the drama carry the story instead of continuously cutting to a new reference point. The film’s most poignant scene, with Jon crumbling into tears as he mourns his dead family, ends too early, with a jarring shift to horses clopping as their riders approach Black Creek. Furthermore, much of the charm of action-packed Westerns comes from the pregnant pauses before an action-packed shoot-out. In The Salvation, the characters often shoot first and don’t bother to give much thought of who they are shooting.
Regardless, what could have worked primarily as a throwback succeeds even more due to the fine performances. Mikkelsen, withered with grief but far from withdrawn as the hero, gives a wrenching turn as he hunts for that titular salvation. As the town mayor and undertaker shaking his head at the powerful gunslingers in town, character actor Jonathan Pryce strikes the right tone between cynicism and comic relief. Meanwhile, Morgan is a hoot, relishing his part as a brutal baddie in a burgundy coat. (From the grumbling and handlebar moustache, it seems like the actor is doing a Sam Elliott impression, if that great character actor was more the voice of the Devil than God.) Finally, Green – often the best part of genre misfires – lets her eyes do the talking as her character cannot. Unfortunately, though, she feels underused, showing up around halfway through the story and finding herself often delegated to prop status.
At 92 minutes, The Salvation is too lean. The penetrating stares of Green and Mikkelsen complement the sharp straight shooting, but the character arcs could have been more developed. To keep with the brisk pace, neither character gets much time to reflect on what is happening. Both actors have to play the strong and silent type; however, Jon is more a figure of resolve than a flesh-and-blood person, while Madelaine’s lack of agency makes it hard to understand her motivations.
The Salvation is, as any good western, a film of a few words and draws as much of its power from the iconography as it does from the history. (The ratio of gun re-loads to lines of dialogue is quite low.) Harsh spurts of violence throughout, as well as an explosive, extensive action sequence near the end, rivet our attention. The gunshots pierce, with each blast sounding like a whip striking wood. Levring’s film is an homage made with care and stunning clarity, as if the Danish director knew exactly the allusions to spring upon fans of the Western genre to get their respect. To some, a pastiche will be powerful enough. Others, however, may demand more psychological complexity to go with the point-blank violence.
The Salvation may be more of a genre exercise than an effective thriller, but compelling performances help elevate this Danish western.