MOVIE REVIEW: The Salvation

(Photo courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)


50th Chicago International Film Festival special presentation

The "American Western" is a quintessential film genre that is as wholly American as its title.  Even though the American Western has become a lost art and a dying breed in its country of origin and setting, it has a rich and storied history that enables the genre to have an influence on films made throughout the world.  After all, as Charles Caleb Colton famously said, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."  The "spaghetti westerns" of Italy, the "osterns" of the former Eastern Block nations, the "meat pie westerns" of Australia, and the cross-overs to the samurai and warrior tales of China and Japan all have pieces of their foundation built from the American Western.  

Even with all of those variations, we still come back to the lost art and dying breed that are film westerns.  So much has been done that it's hard to find a fresh take.  If you have felt that loss and need a jolt, an extremely taut and good homage to the American Western has emerged in "The Salvation," playing now in limited release and Video on Demand, from Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring.  Headlined by Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Jonathan Pryce, the film moved the needle a bit during the 2014 film festival circuit, including a pair of screenings at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival last October (where yours truly caught the ride).

Mikkelson, a hot commodity thanks to TV's "Hannibal," plays Jon, a Danish settler who has come to the American Plains in new home for this family.  Aided by his fellow brother and fellow army veteran Peter (South African actor Mikael Persbrandt of "The Hobbit" series), Jon traveled ahead to get the lay of the land and hasn't seen his wife and son for over five years.  We meet Jon and join this story on the day where that finally ends in 1871, on the cusp of the oil boom in the American West.  His wife and son have arrived by train to reunite with Jon and start their new life.

The three have tickets for stagecoach travel to their town and nearby homestead, but a pair of belligerent ruffians are also aboard.  When they make a pass at Jon's wife, the situation intensifies and Jon is thrown out of the wagon.  Not knowing the fate of his family, Jon hurriedly recovers and follows the wagon only to find that the two assailants have murdered his wife and son for sport.  

Jon exacts a quick revenge and leaves no witnesses.  However, that revenge breaks him mentally and follows his home.  As it turns out the two thugs were working for the powerful and violent land baron Delarue (Morgan), one of which was his own brother.  Delarue takes his anger and frustrations out on Jon's nearby townspeople, where Mayor Keane (Pryce) has no clout or power to match Delarue.  Soon enough, in true western fashion, combined revenge boils over to an inevitable showdown.  Throw in Eva Green's mute femme fatale and you've got even more buttons being pushed to dial up that tension.

The recipes of themes for the western genre are simple.  So simple if fact that the purer and simpler the better.  There's no need to throw together wild diversions or tangents of style to get a good western.  A tried and true western is a stiff shot of whiskey, not a Bloody Mary with a salad's worth of ingredients.  Leave the western bloody maries to Quentin Tarantino.  "The Salvation" is a straight shooter with no chaser in every sense of the description.

In keeping things minimalist and calculated, Levring and company have crafted a hidden gem with this Danish homage to the American Western.  Spanning a quick 92 minutes and paced by a perfectly sweeping musical score from composet Kasper Winding, "The Salvation" moves extremely efficiently while still granting its audience the requisite jaw-dropping vista cinematography (from lenser Jens Schlosser) we love in westerns.  Any temptation for dead weight and drag has been smartly trimmed, not only by the man-of-few-words acting, but also by the basic revenge story framework that always delivers in this genre.  Mikkelsen and Morgan, in particular, both playing against type, are in fine form and grab your attention in this pristine homage that deserves your attention if you can find it.  Learn to love westerns again with "The Salvation."

LESSON #1: THIS FILM IS PROOF THEY DON'T MAKE WESTERNS LIKE THEY USED TO-- Stepping away from the film itself and looking at the big picture, "The Salvation" is a perfect example of not only a western genre film done right, but one that's a homage to the way they used to be done in the prime.  Taut, simple, brutal, and poignant, "The Salvation" from Denmark delivers where other domestic efforts have failed or missed the mark with superfluous excess.  It's impressive and disconcerting at the same time that foreigners can do it better than the originators.  

LESSON #2: YOU DON'T MESS WITH A MAN'S WIFE AND KID-- Jon, while skilled as a soldier, is an honorable man that will turn the other cheek if it means trouble subsides and goes away.  He has a high boiling point and an understanding that you choose your battles.  However, that goes out the window once his family is taken from him, and rightfully so.  Women and children are the line you just don't cross with another man.  Those boys had it coming.

LESSON #3: THE CLASSIC MOTIVE OF REVENGE-- Jon doesn't need a higher calling, a greater cause, or a speech of talking points to react to the violence around him and become a man of action.  Revenge is all he needs and the same applies for Delarue as the black hat villain.  Those two go tooth-for-tooth for no other reason or motivation.  As with that classic western theme, it's a chase, a pursuit, and a thirst that can only fulfilled and quenched by someone pushing up daisies.