Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Salvation (2014) Film Review
Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall
The presence of Denmark’s chief acting export Mads Mikkelsen in the cast, and the fact that director Kristian Levring also hails from the country, gives the impression that The Salvation will be a different kind of Western. Perhaps a Euro-flavoured take on the genre, or maybe an arthouse slant, like the recently released Jauja. In fact, Levring doesn’t play with the formula, instead taking the trusty stetson-and-six-shooter vehicle out for a spin without tinkering with the engine.
The Salvation was shot in South Africa, and Levering does make good use of the harshly beautiful landscapes to recreate the setting of a frontier town in 1870s America, a place where the law only runs so far. It isn't so strange to hear Mikkelsen’s unmistakable accent here rubbing up against the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan - who plays a classic man-in-black villain type against Mikkelsen’s new settler Jon - as these vast empty lands were being filled up with refugees from the old world. Jon himself, it is hinted at, was a former soldier of some repute from some European war, now done with fighting and world-weary. In the opening minutes of the film, the classic scenario of a man waiting for his family at a newly built locomotive station plays out for us - this is a brief and ultimately misleading glimpse of America as a place of new, youthful energy and technological progress married to wide open spaces, where one can get lost and start again. Jon’s attempts to start a new life with his family in the small outpost of The Salvation go awry rapidly.
Barely are they off the train when Jon’s wife and son are kidnapped and murdered by drunken thugs. Jon’s revenge is swift and deadly, he clearly hasn't forgotten his soldiering skills fighting the Germans back in Europe, but unfortunately for him, one of the dead men’s brothers is gang boss Delarue. Delarue sets about hunting Jon down, his methods of identifying his target include shooting various Salvation townsfolk publicly as a blood price (one of the film’s more striking moments, even the elderly are not spared), the killings set to continue until someone gives Jon up. As with the HBO show Deadwood and older films such as High Plains Drifter, the law here is executed by the sheriff in name only, Delarue really runs things and the townsfolk live in fear of the gang and the gun, lawmen meekly bowing the head and carrying out Delarue’s gruesome demands. Meetings Delarue takes with prosperous-looking gentlemen from out of town imply backing from powerful financial interests looking to buy up the land, once the people on it are either dead or forced off. This is a dark view of America as a land where rapacious property-based capitalism is already well-established.
The journey to the black hat/white hat confrontation, as Jon and Delarue fight each other to the last man and the last bullet, isn't particularly surprising even if it has its gritty pleasures and some blackly funny moments. The film ultimately falls between two stools: it isn't exaggerated and intense enough to be a guilty treat or a supercharged pastiche/homage like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but nor is it surprising or thought-provoking enough so that it feels like new depths are being mined. Mikkelsen and Morgan perhaps symbols this divide: Morgan plays Delarue as though he is acting in a comic book movie (maybe he is still stuck in Watchmen mode), Mikkelsen carries on like he is in an arthouse flick. The swipes at American capitalism’s bloody birth (the background land speculation plot and glimpses towards the end of oil derricks) are not particularly subtle and feel tacked-on rather than an essential part of the canvas. The Salvation is a straight shooter, but no more.Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2015