The Salvation / Denmark / 2014 / dir. Kristian Levring / 98 mins / western / starring Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green & Eric Cantona

 

Screened as part of the Chicago International Film Festival 2014

With genre film, sometimes to deliver on the tropes is enough. The Salvation and its revenge-seeking-cowboy tale may not be revolutionary, but with a confident mix of convention and a clever use of budget, it’s a rare Western-throwback that understands, beyond shoot-outs and horse chases, the dramatic roots of its elders.

It’s 1871 in the Wild West, and powerful forces are manipulating the citizens of the countryside in hopes of being the first to profit from the impending oil boom. When Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) exacts revenge on his wife’s killer, he unknowingly murders the brother of a notorious, psychopathic outlaw (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Danish director Kristian Levring gives Jon a small backstory to explain Mikkelsen’s European heritage, but is primarily interested in creating a genuine American Western. Like Lars Von Trier, Levring has strayed almost completely from his Dogme 95 days when he was operating under the pretense that realism and practicality was the key to transcendent cinema. The Salvation isn’t much for realism, and its many moments of bloodshed are anything but practical, but there have been a pitifully small number of truly effective Westerns in past years and this happens to be one of them.

Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples) favor stealth combat over wide-screen shoot-outs and saloon-set brawls. As Jon is just one man taking on an outlaw’s gang in this intense kill-or-be-killed scenario, he picks them off one by one in the night rather than facing the group head-on. Watching Jon – a peaceful settler, not a full-fledged cowboy – set traps and decoys for the outlaws to fall into is fun and brutal.

Mikkelsen is, within the limitations of his archetypal character, outstanding – a revelation as an action hero and a solid competitor to replace Liam Neeson should he ever stop making Taken films. The Danish supporting cast is similarly pitch perfect, but it’s the American players that fall flat. Morgan, who plays the gang leader hunting Jon down, is committed but can’t fully hide how unbelievable the character is on paper. He’s betrayed by the script and not given the shape to come to life as a genuine human, which, as the primary antagonist, does some damage to the film’s central conflict. Wooden roles in Westerns is one trope we can go ahead and squash, but in step with tradition, Levring is content to let the outlaws be outlaws; the hero the hero.

In terms of the role of women in this notoriously male-focused genre, well, the most prominent woman (played by Eva Green) is literally a mute – having had her tongue cut out by Indians. This self-aware restriction is a nice touch considering Green ends up developing one of the more interesting characters in the film.

The Salvation gets the essential, iconic look mostly dead-on. The train-track-roaring, horse-and-buggy-rumbling opening scene impresses with wind-blown characters donning clanking revolvers and dusty cowhide jackets. The costumes, sets, and sound design all immerse you in the world and make great use of surround sound speaker systems.

There’s also an excellent piece of set design found in the burned-out ghost town that plays host to the final third of the film. Blackened shells of houses surround a saloon – the only surviving building and the headquarters of the outlaws.

Cinematographer Jens Schlosser offers many nods to the genre’s greatest tropes (even introducing the antagonist with a close-up of his boots slamming into the dirt from atop a horse), but he also contributes to the film’s one egregious lapse in visual quality. After a beautiful dusk-lit sequence, night falls and everything goes wonky. This may be the worst lit nighttime scene that I’ve ever seen in a professional production. The color grading is so heavy that it crushes the blacks and distorts the colors to a deep, unnatural blue. The on-set lighting is also incredibly direct – practically a spotlight – resulting in the “moon” casting razor-sharp shadows on the ground. The scene runs for under five minutes, but it’s so significant even the casual moviegoer with an untrained eye will likely notice it.

In Schlosser’s better moments, he uses massive crane shots to highlight the vistas of the American Southwest, and adds a sense of scale to this nifty Danish-American fusion project. Mikkelsen may be lacking an iconic line of dialogue to enable the film to reach cult-hit levels in the United States, but The Salvation is a drama-minded Western that tells a well-worn story in artful ways.

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