“The Salvation” looks and feels like an authentic American western film, and you will probably be surprised to know that it was actually made by a Danish director in South Africa. Drive by its terse storytelling coupled with harsh, remorseless violence, this dark, compelling western drama works as an earnest homage to its genre, and it also injects a number of interesting variations into a familiar revenge plot revolving around good and evil.
Its story is about a Danish immigrant named Jon (Mads Mikkelson), who has tried to settle in some American frontier area during the late 19th century. After the war in their country was over seven years ago, Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), who were soldiers participating in the war during that time, came to America for starting a new life for them and Jon’s wife and young son, and the opening scene shows them waiting for Jon’s wife and son to arrive at the train station in a nearby town.
Jon is happy to see his family again after long years when they finally arrive, but, unfortunately, his joy does not last long because of their accidental encounter with two strangers who happen to ride along with them in a stagecoach. It is soon revealed that these strangers are dangerous criminals, and then they eventually kill Jon’s wife and son during their savage robbery. Devastated by this shattering loss, Jon subsequently executes his revenge on these criminals after tracking them down, and he and Peter begin to prepare for their departure after the burial of his wife and son.
However, they soon face the consequence of Jon’s vengeful action not long after they arrive at the town. One of two criminals killed by Jon turns out to be the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and Delarue, an ex-soldier who leads a bunch of intimidating armed goons while extorting the town people in the name of protection, is naturally very angry about this. He wants to catch a man responsible for his brother’s death, and there is no one in the town who can stop his urge for vengeance. Keane (Jonathan Pryce), the mayor of the town who also works as an undertaker, is a spineless guy who cannot possibly say no to Delarue while gladly taking any chance for more benefit, and Mallick (Douglas Henshall), the helpless sheriff of the town who is also supposed to be its spiritual leader as a pastor, has no choice but to bend to this evil, ruthless man’s will – even when he and others in the town are forced to make an impossible choice during one sad, shocking moment of violence.
And we also meet Madelaine (Eva Green), a scarred mute woman with elusive and unnerving intensity. While belonging to Delarue’s dead brother after being saved by him from Indians a long time ago, Madelaine has also worked as the financial accountant for Delarue’s growing criminal business associated with some big oil company, and Delarue does not mind becoming her new man at all even though his brother was buried not that long ago.
The screenplay by the director Kristian Levring and his co-screenplay writer Anders Thomas Jensen gradually builds tension step by step as Jon and Delarue inevitably take their collision course. Like many other western films, the movie ultimately arrives at the climax decorated with gunshots and other kinds of violence to strike us, and Levring deftly handles this part with taut efficiency and emotional impact. He also utilizes his South African locations well to create the alien but believable ambience of the Wild West on the screen, and his cinematographer Jens Schlosser provides several wonderful shots which clearly evoke the impression of classic western films in their thoughtful composition.
The actors in the film look convincing as inhabiting the world their characters belong to. Mads Mikkelsen, a stoic, resilient master of understated feelings as shown in Oscar-nominated film “The Hunt” (2012) and recent TV series “Hannibal”, is well-cast as a tragic hero who silently grieves and suffers along the course of his unfair plight, and he is compelling to watch even when his face barely expresses pain, sorrow, fury, and many other dark feelings churning inside his taciturn character. While generating a real sense of brotherhood between him and Mikkelsen, Mikael Persbrandt has his own small moment when Peter slowly manipulates his opponent for a certain purpose, and that scene is certainly better than when this good Swedish actor was rather wasted in “The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies” (2014).
On the opposite, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is effectively menacing as the main villain of the story. It goes without saying that Delarue is a vile, vicious man, but he seems to have his own miserable side as indirectly suggested at one point, and his lonely, barren lair surrounded by burned buildings further accentuates his wretched status full of murder and corruption. Eva Green, who was one of a few real good things in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (2014), always draws our attention with her terrific wordless performance while her ambiguous character constantly holds the cards behind her back as a potential wild card in the story, and other actors including Jonathan Pryce, Eric Cantona, and Douglas Henshall bring some personalities to their stock characters.
Compared to Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” (2014), another modern western film which incidentally came out in the same year, “The Salvation” feels less polished and resonant in comparison (Its occasional use of CGI is a little too blatant at times, for example). I think it could have dug deeper into its subjects, but it is still an engaging genre piece, and it certainly confirms us again of Mikkelsen’s undeniably captivating screen presence.