The Salvation Dir. Kristian Levring

[Nordisk Film; 2015]

Styles: western
Others: Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Wild Bunch, For a Few Dollars More

Mads Mikkelsen has played everyone from a James Bond villain to Hannibal Lecter, yet in his native Denmark he gets the opportunity to play good guys, too. The new Danish export The Salvation is the latest example of a European filmmakers taking on a genre that’s resolutely American: the Western. The trouble is that director Kristian Levring is no Sergio Leone. Rife with unimaginative violence and xenophobic paranoia, this a Western with the right look and the wrong ambition.

Levring films in South Africa instead of the United States, and admittedly the stunning plains and deserts are a strong substitute for the real thing. Jon (Mikkelsen) is a rancher who settled in the States after disgust with Danish civil war. After years apart, his wife and son finally arrive at the train station, although they do not last long. They share a stagecoach with Paul (Michael Raymond-James), an evil man who ultimately rapes Jon’s wife and murders his son. Jon gets his revenge quickly, but Paul’s brother Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a tyrant who rules the nearby town through brute intimidation, and he wants blood. Jon’s capture and execution seems inevitable, except his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) might stand in the way.

Every American character in The Salvation is either violent lunatic or a miserable coward. The only exception is Madelaine (Eva Green), and she’s mute after Indians took out her tongue. Now I don’t mind when filmmakers and screenwriters present large groups of people broadly — this is how all comedies and war films get made, more or less — but the problem here is the execution. All the characters, even the virtuous ones, are one dimensional to a fault. Western are meant to serve as an exploration of how civilization clashes with our basest nature. Levring does not have that curiosity or depth, so his revenge tale amount to little more than gun-slinging for its own sake.

In is admittedly difficult to film a Western shoot-out in a compelling way. Actors are static, with simple lines of sight and little movement, so filmmakers typically add suspense through emotion or close ups. None of that happens in The Salvation. Levring only goes through the motions of a shoot-out, and his climax looks like list a series of increasingly dire gunshot wounds (CGI explosions are neither plausible nor campy).

Moreover, Jon and Delarue don’t speak beyond simple platitudes, and the terse storytelling economy denies them any depth. The strong, silent type is common in Westerns, yet they require an air of mystery, whereas we know exactly what Jon is thinking, even when he does not speak. The same can be said for Madeleine, regrettably, despite her handicap (her grim mini-arc has a misogynist streak). Mikkelsen and Green are terrific actors, yet the director betrays the strength of their performances. He does not trust them enough.

American audiences will feel like The Salvation is an imitation, as if the filmmakers ape Peckinpah/Leone without any gravitas. Foreign audiences — at least those not in Denmark — may miss its purpose entirely. Like other big budget international films with American actors (there are many in China, for instance), this is a film that’ll be best appreciated by moviegoers in its home country. The characters in The Salvation quietly accept a disturbing social contract, one that values force and vengeance over justice. The best Western filmmakers see this structure as an opportunity to explore human behavior, at its most sublime and brutal. Levring, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to play in his Western sandbox, albeit on a large scale.

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