Overview: A Danish soldier attempts to relocate to the American West, but runs into some bad luck and some worse people. Warner Bros; 2015; Rated R; 100 Minutes.
The Hero: It’s strange seeing the hero cry in a western. Not in a bad way, I mean. It’s actually refreshing. John Wayne emoted in subtle expressions and sometimes he even wailed (The Alamo, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but I don’t think he ever allowed himself to cry. Clint Eastwood grimaced and winced sometimes, but I expect to receive a cease and desist letter from his attorneys just for mentioning Eastwood in a paragraph about tears. Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones… hell, I can’t even remember if Jimmy Stewart cried in his western films. Maybe that’s why it feels so simultaneously alien and humanizing when Jon (played by Mads Mikkelsen) breaks into tearful wailing early in The Salvation. We are introduced to Jon as a former Danish soldier looking to establish a simpler life with his family in the American West. When the life of his wife and child are taken, Jon is reluctantly dragged into a narrative that will surprise few fans of the fading genre. But even when Writer Anders Thomas Jensen and Writer/Director Kristian Levring permit Jon to break type and openly weep, they also finely tune his opposition to preserve the more important righteousness symbolized in Jon’s patiently understated character. Levring always allows Jon’s targets to speak or react just long enough to remind us of their vile intent before punctuating the sentiment with fierce, piercing justice. The Salvation borrows the technique and arrangement of its brutal shootouts and showdowns from a more action packed brand of film, so that Jon’s victory over his villains is both bloodier than standard but more cleanly stated in terms of symbolic interpretation. For his part, the typically stoic and tremblingly intense Mikkelsen is incendiary, his face scarred, inexpressive, and perfectly contextualized in an Old West Shoot’em Up.
His Adversary: When Jon vengefully dispatches of his family’s murderers, he unknowingly executes the brother of a notorious, sadistic mob boss, Delarue, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The sequence following Delarue’s arrival in the nearest town establishes a villainous set-up so effective that there may have been no chance for the rest of the performance and story to live up. Morgan is sandwiched between two powerhouse performances here, which makes his slight shortcomings all the more noticeable. Morgan barks, whispers, and rasps with a gravely voice, likely attempting to conjure Gene Hackman’s Little Bill (Unforgiven) or Henry Fonda’s Frank (Once Upon a Time in the West), but too often sounding more like a parody of a Terrence Malick voiceover. When the second act begins to bore, the drag is directly attributable to Morgan and Levring’s imbalanced handling of the character. Delarue is just never interesting enough to anchor his own scenes.
A Different Sort of Princess: The Salvation was filmed primarily in Johannesburg, South Africa and this gorgeous rolling landscape permits a distinct tone of menace to decorate the hyper-stylized cinematography. The night time sequences feel loaded with threat. The skyline appears heavy and mad, the sort of horizon that presupposes a violent storm. Almost as an extension of this, Delarue’s mutilated and widowed sister-in-law Madelaine (Eva Green) lends hypnotic volatility to every scene in which she appears. Green’s literally-muted supporting performance here is absolutely astonishing, my first glimpse into what I’ve heard many say about the actress. However, her character’s close positioning to Delarue leaves her stranded on a narrative island, toward which the right bridge is never built.
Overall: If more effort had made been to position Madelaine as the real counter to Jon, The Salvation might have been an instant western classic. As it stands, the film is still, at times, wildly entertaining and certainly enough to temporarily appease starving fans of the genre.