In the 1960s Italian director Sergio Leone dared to re-imagine the Western, that most sacred of American genres. Now comes Danish director Kristian Levring with “The Salvation,” a Western that proudly embraces the Leone influence with wide shots of the American plains, rough looking men with flies on their faces, and very little idealism. It does not re-invent the wheel, but it is directed with confidence and features solid performances from its gun-toting leads.
Proving he will have no time finding work now that “Hannibal” has been regrettably cancelled, Mads Mikkelsen stars as a Danish immigrant simply called Jon who has found a new life in the American west after his part in a war. He has not seen his wife and young boy in seven years and upon meeting them at the train station he intends to live a happy life with them as they settle into their new country. In what turns out to be the worst incident of immigrants clashing with the local population, Jon’s wife and child are brutally murdered while travelling to his home via stagecoach. Jon wastes no time in catching the two killers and enacting revenge by emptying his rifle into them even once they are dead.
The problem with revenge of course is that there is always someone else who will want to avenge the person you killed, even if that person was a murderer. One of the murderers has a brother, and that brother just so happens to be land baron Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, looking right at home in the West with his mustache) who rules over the local town with an iron fist. When he learns of his brother’s death Delarue gives the cowardly sheriff/reverend (Douglas Henshall) two hours to find the killer or he will kill two towns people in order to balance the scales, so to speak. When the sheriff fails and two people are volunteered to be executed, Delarue shoots a third person on the basis that one of the people executed had no legs and therefore counted as only half a man.
Once Delarue figures out Jon is the man he is looking for, he sends his posse after Jon and his brother Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) who must fend for themselves since no one in the town has the courage to stand up to the Delarue. The conflict of interest is most obvious with the town mayor (Jonathan Pryce) who is also the local undertaker, and also brokers land deals. People die, and he makes money building their coffins. People leave town because of the violence, and he makes money by buying their land and then selling it back to Delarue. In most Westerns Delarue would be interested in buying up a town to make way for the railroad, but in an interesting twist here the land baron wants the land because of the black oil underneath it, which he believes will be worth money someday. He might be on to something.
Levring’s movie does not escape the inevitable trope of a final gunfight in the streets between the “good guy” and the “bad guy” in the black hat, but it is a very well staged gunfight to be sure as Jon scuttles under Delarue’s burnt houses taking out his men one by one. Adding fuel to the fire is Eva Green as Madelaine, Delarue’s widowed sister-in-law. Throughout the film she never utters a single word so you are never sure of where she stands, but Green is an actress who can do a lot with her eyes. An added bonus for James Bond fans, the first meeting between Mikkelsen and Green counts as a mini “Casino Royal” reunion.
The Western genre is as American as it gets, but a film like “The Salvation” proves that it can sometimes benefit from an outsider’s perspective while still remaining a rootin’ tootin’ shoot-em up.
(“The Salvation” is out on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)