Westerns might not be popular in Hollywood anymore, but they’re still somewhat in vogue abroad, as this Danish-British-South African example proves. More Sergio Leone than John Ford, it’s a visually expansive compendium of revenge-movie clichés suffused with Scandinavian angst—not a spaghetti western, but sort of a cheesy Danish one.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as Jon, an ex-soldier who emigrated to America with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) after Denmark’s loss to Germany in 1864. Seven years later, he’s established a homestead in a barren area of the west and saved enough to bring his wife Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) to the New World. Unfortunately, they’re forced to share a stagecoach with two drunken brutes who toss Jon from the coach and kill Kresten and Marie after raping the woman. Jon catches up with them on foot and dispatches them both handily.
Unfortunately, one of the dead men, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) proves to have been the brother of vicious Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former Indian fighter who’s now collecting all the land around the town of Black Creek for a company interested in gold of the black variety. The settlement is totally under his control, paying him protection money every month under the cowardly leadership of mayor-undertaker Keane (Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff-preacher Mallick (Douglas Henshall), who turn over innocent townsmen for him to kill in payment for his brother’s death. Even worse, when they discover that homesteader Jon was the actual killer, in true “High Noon” fashion they turn him over to Delarue’s decidedly un-tender mercies.
Fortunately Peter rescues Jon from Delarue’s torture, and though he’s killed in their escape, Jon survives to seek proper revenge against the villain’s gang, with only one townsman—young Volchek (Alexander Arnold)—willing to help him. He will ultimately also find an unlikely ally in Paul’s widowed wife Madeleine (Eva Green), also called Princess, a beauty with a face scarred when Indians cut out her tongue, whom Delarue now looks upon as ripe for taking.
“The Salvation” was filmed in South Africa, whose vistas, thanks to Jens Schlosser’s widescreen lensing and a little post-production tinkering, are made to resemble those of Monument Valley. The vast spaces—even in the town and Delarue’s camp, niftily constructed by production designer Jorgen Munk—recall those that Leone exulted in, and Kasper Winding’s score comes across as a canny combination of Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith. The cast is a similarly intriguing mixture of European and American performers (which dovetails with the mingling of Americans and recent immigrants in the setting). Mikkelsen brings a somber elegance to Jon, his icily unwavering stare a kind of reflection of Leone’s impassive heroes, while Morgan appears to be channeling the Powers Booth of movies like “Extreme Prejudice” as the cruel Delarue. Among the supporting cast Jonathan Pryce stands out as Mayor Keane, whose combination of false friendliness and duplicity is duly punished, and Alexander Arnold, looking a bit like the young Anthony Perkins, scores nicely, even if he does have to utter one of the script’s most hackneyed lines—“You don’t stand a chance alone!” But the person who commands most attention on the relatively few occasions when she appears certainly Green whose simmering rage at her misuse does not bode well for her brother-in-law; she even carries off another of the movie’s worst moments—the one where a character contemptuously spits in another’s face.
Director Kristian Levring doesn’t go into slow-motion for the many scenes of brutality and bloodletting, but he does pace them with a solemn air, preferring to show guys being shot repeatedly before expiring and even opting for a few baroque alternatives, like a fellow going up in flames and another being shot through the lid of a casket or stabbed in the eye with a knife. That might make the film sound more gruesome than it actually is, but though far more graphic than Hollywood oaters of the forties and fifties, or even later ones like “Unforgiven” (which “The Salvation” also references at several points), it’s actually less explicit that many of today’s action movies.
Ultimately Levring’s film is a homage as much to a previous homage (Leone’s oeuvre) as to classic Hollywood westerns. As such it has many of the failings of any clone of a clone: the familiarity is so unrelenting that eventually it elicits smiles of recognition rather than real emotional involvement. But for devotees of westerns who have found the recent drought in the genre hard to accept, it will provide at least a temporary respite.