The western as a genre is one that I’ve really grown to love in the last decade or so, but for the most part, what was once the most prolific type of film in the world has been relegated to a once-in-a-while oddity. A lot of people don’t like westerns, see them as boring or old fashioned, but that’s kind of the point. The iconography of the “The West” in cinema terms includes sweeping vistas, quick violence, and moral codes outside of law and order. But, if a Western is going to be made today, it needs to be from a point of view we don’t normally see, and that’s exactly what the Danish/British/South African co-production The Salvation has done.
People settled in the American West from all sorts of places, but it’s rare that the hero of a story isn’t a WASP, but from somewhere else in Europe. Clearly they arrived from all over the place. This story stars Mads Mikkelsen, usually a very effective psychopath in things like Hannibal and Casino Royale, who here is playing a former Danish soldier named Jon who moved to the West with his soldier brother (Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt) to start a new life. Seven years after settling, Jon sends for his wife and young son, who is now 10 years old, and almost immediately, tragedy befalls them at the hands of two recently-released convicts. Jon’s revenge is swift and brutal, which would normally be the end of the story, but unfortunately, the convict was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the ruthless landgrabber who runs a protection racket for the small town that’s closest to Jon’s farm. Delarue wants the man who killed his brother, or he’ll start murdering townsfolk, something the mayor (Jonathan Pryce) wants to avoid, naturally. The brother’s widow is the mysterious Madeleine (Eva Green) whose motives are very unclear, but who is a dangerous presence regardless.
This is a very simple and very common Western film story: it’s all about revenge, and revenge for the revenge, and restitution for the multiple revenges, etc. etc. Just because it’s simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily done poorly. There are some great and tense sequences and the requisite shootouts for a film of this nature. Danish director Kristian Levring may have had a modest budget, but he gets the most out of it, turning parts of the South African desert into believable portions of the untamed American west, and even building townships. The only time it really becomes apparent that we’re a film on a budget is when there are CG shorts of oil derricks. Those don’t look great, but you can’t disparage people for trying something.
The biggest revelation here is Mikkelsen, who, as I said, famous plays scary people. He was incredibly sympathetic in the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, but I’d never seen him play a true hero until this. He’s excellent, stoic and strong like all good Western protagonists but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge. He seems like a good man pushed too far and never like a man for whom killing was the first choice. We only get little throwaway lines regarding his time in the Danish army but they’re enough to let us understand where he’s coming from, seeing horrors of war and trying to get away from that.
The movie as a whole is good, not great, but Mikkelsen elevates it, as does Morgan who plays one of the better frothing Western villains we’ve seen in awhile. He’s repugnant and reprehensible, exactly as he ought to be. He’s the blackhat after all. For fans of Westerns, this is a worthy entry from a group of people who are underrepresented in the genre.