Westerns have never recovered from the oversaturation of the genre that killed off viewer interest decades ago, but every now and then a gem pops up. Recent successes like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers adaptation of True Grit all did well because they tweaked the genre slightly, but director Kristian Levring goes with an old school approach. A faithful recreation of those revenge Westerns made so popular in the 1970s, The Salvation envelopes many elements of previous Clint Eastwood classics and wraps it into a tidy package.
The Salvation starts in on the central dilemma, joining Jon (Hannibal‘s Mad Mikkelsen) at the train station where he awaits the arrival of his wife and son. Jon and his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), have lived in the United States long enough to build a hospitable life for their family back in Denmark. This homecoming should be a sweet moment to establish the family important to Jon, but fate plays out rather differently. A swap at the train station places two rowdy drunks in the same stagecoach as Jon and his family–and before audiences can really settle into their seats–his wife and son are killed.
Most films would let the murderer escape, choosing to focus on Jon chasing the murderer across the frontier, instead, Jon dispatches both men with prejudice. That should be the end of the issue, but the man he killed is the brother of none other than feared gang leader, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Westerns are defined by their villains and Delarue is a blackhat whose cruelty may go unrivaled in cinema. He callously shoots an old woman and a disabled man, before doubling the amount of protection money that Black Creek pays him monthly. Until the man who kills his brother is punished, Delarue is holding the entire town responsible.
Jon and Peter seek to take their holdings and go west to escape the recent horrors they’ve endured, but there’s no such luck to be had. Black Creek is a hard, ugly town, filled with cowards. In fact, Marshal Will Kane would feel right at home among the townspeople who refuse to do what is right. Betrayed by everyone (even the sheriff) and left with no alternative, Jon is forced to hunt down the outlaws alone. A farmer for the last eight years, Jon’s transformation into hardened killer would seem unnatural if it weren’t for his experience in the war. Mikkelsen has played stoic protagonists before in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, but a Western plays perfectly to his quiet, yet fearsome nature.
Mikkelsen performing admirably isn’t a surprise to anyone, the real treat is what Levring does with his co-star Eva Green. In a move that I would describe as brilliant, Eva Green, is forced to communicate solely with her eyes as the mute widow of Delarue’s slain brother. That she so completely smashes gender stereotypes in the third act makes her inclusion all the more satisfying. Especially in a grand, final showdown against Morgan’s particularly loathsome Delarue. Levring delivers the fireworks expected in a bloody, conclusion and all three principals (Mikkelsen, Green and Morgan) come alive just as the clock ticks closer to the endgame.
Running at a brief clip of 89 minutes, The Salvation is svelte, but the deliberateness is felt throughout harsh, brutal moments. Shot in South Africa, the film is starkly beautiful recalling the great cinematography from The Proposition. Kristian Levring’s film isn’t what one would call easy viewing, but it excels at its aim. Fans hoping for a gritty shoot-em-up will be sure to enjoy.