The Salvation comes to home video this month as something of a rarity in today’s cinema landscape, which is a fairly straight exercise in the genre of the Western – a film not especially interested in revisionism and deconstructing tropes of the genre, nor in making particularly grand comments or social satire through the form. In fact, its closest cousins in modern cinema probably lie in the action genre – the John Wicks and Liam Neeson vehicles; clear-cut good guys and bad guys in pretty straightforward revenge dramas. The Salvation is particularly pared back, clocking in at under 90 minutes and refreshing in its simplicity, but never stupidity – sound character motivations combined with stunning cinematography make this something of a throwback to the Westerns of yesteryear rather than all the recent experiments in the genre, making it clear to my eyes that the Western is ripe for revisiting by the Hollywood studios for some Taken-esq projects going forward.
Danish settler Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) has been separated for seven years from his wife and son, working his land in America to be in physical and financial shape to support a family. A touching reunion and a life ahead is shattered instantly by a grisly end to an increasingly uncomfortable ride to town with strange men. His wife and child murdered, Jon kills his family’s attackers, but his vengeance has far-reaching consequences; one of the men was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a vicious tyrant over local town Black Creek who holds the fate of the townspeople in his hand, executing people non-discriminately in the street and with the mayor of the town (Jonathan Pryce) in his pocket. The simple tale of enraging the monstrous villain is complicated slightly by a third player, the mysterious widow of Delarue’s fallen brother (Eva Green), mute and tattooed from her previous life captured by Native Americans and possessing a silent and menacing influence over Delarue, though with ambiguous intentions. The film progresses as you might expect, culminating in a gundown reminiscent of so many classic Westerns, but managing to pack its punches and satisfy on a dramatic level.
Directed by Danish director Kristian Levring, the film is a far cry from the Dogme 95 manifesto once instrumental in the filmmaker’s work; dependant on moments on shocking violence and plot motivation invented from the script, and shot in an extremely stylised fashion; warped colours, stark compositions and an effective non-diegetic score that you could almost trick your ears into believing was a Morricone work, this film makes the South African location shooting look a lot like the real thing, as an extremely aestheticised Monument Valley, and one which benefits from Madman’s Blu-ray release. Interesting that Dogme disciples Levring and Thomas Vinterberg have turned to such manufactured, conservative genres for their most recent films (Vinterberg’s period adaptation Far From the Madding Crowd) – I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we can expect Lars von Trier’s high school drama.
The Salvation works and is hindered by the same element, being its unpretentious aspirations of making an effective genre entry in a well-worn formula. There are portions of the film to unpack, however – there’s a contemporary and subversive edge to the way Levring shoots the oil reserves the town’s land is on, particularly black, soulless and seductive, with a final image suggesting a broader structural explanation for violence than Delarue’s own sociopathy; and there’s certainly an analogy to be made of Levring himself as an outside Dane struggling to get a foothold into the American dream, but the pleasures in this film are to be found on a basic level. Mikkelsen brings a tough, brooding presence to the Western, with the damaged psychologies of the antiheroes of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann’s Westerns (the final act echoes Man of the West) and the sharp, avian features of a Lee van Cleef make him look the part. Morgan’s villain is effective, if generic, and Eva Green’s character might have looked more at home as an extra in Pirates of the Caribbean yet turns in a quietly attention-grabbing performance. Maybe all we get in The Salvation is a solid, old-fashioned revenge Western that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and subvert the genre. Maybe in today’s film landscape, that’s what we need.