The Salvation is an intensely violent, beautifully filmed, arthouse western that, ultimately, failed to make much of an emotional impression despite its incredibly competent cast and filmmakers.


Danish immigrant and ex-soldier Mads Mikkelsen, has been eking out a hardscrabble living in the American Old West for the last seven years and has finally established himself enough to send for his wife and son, who he has not seen since the boy was a baby. His picturesque family arrives and they set off, happily reunited, for the homestead in a stagecoach, along with a couple of seedy outlaw types riding across from them. Because this is a new school western and the plot gods demand blood and vengeance, things go horribly, weirdly, puzzlingly, suddenly VERY BAD leaving Mads’ family dead at the hands of the outlaws, the outlaws dead at the hands of Mads and one of the outlaw’s brothers, who is the big bad outlaw boss of the town, gunning for Mads’ head.


The town, you see, is run by super bad Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is probably a delightful chap in real life but who just has a face and mustache that predestines him to play joyfully violent heavies in his movie career. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who we shall henceforth refer to as JDM, is predictably seriously pissed off by the death of his super bad little bro, though it does free up little bro’s hot and sexy but tongueless and mute wife, The Princess as fair game for the sexin’ up by JDM. The Princess, played by always fun to watch veteran scenery-chewer Eva Green, lost her tongue and gained a groovy lip scar and seriously bad attitude, when Indians killed her family and kidnapped her as a child because INDIANS!!!!! JDM orders the cowardly townspeople to find the man who shot his paw, er, bro, or he’ll start capping random citizens because that is just the kind of randomly psychotic badass he is. The idiot townspeople predictably fail and feisty grandma, the town cripple and a random husband and father homesteader type end up full of lead as warned. I decided that this unnamed hamlet was actually called Asshole Junction based on the behavior of every single one of its inhabitants save for maybe feisty grandma (RIP) and her valiant but niaeve grandson who inherits the general store. Basically, everyone in this movie that is not Mads Mikkelsen or his brother is kind of a dick and sort of just in the film to up the body count as far as I can tell.


Basically, beautifully lit and shot mayhem occur and there is maybe a subtext about capitalism and oil running through this film. There are also so many crane shots, tracking dolly shots, focus pulls and skillful camera angles that it could be a master class for Directors of Photography. This is not a bad thing, but it does make a film whose plot is rather a nasty little piece of mayhem feel like it should be more of a meditation on violence or capitalism or history or, I don’t know, something much deeper than it actually is. The violence is sort of stuck in this weird place where it’s neither just gleeful bloody mayhem nor an unsettling statement about something larger. It’s just really well shot killing. Which made me feel…weird.


I want to stress that nobody did a bad job with this film: the acting is all over quite fine and gorgeously stone-faced Mads Mikkelsen’s particular brand of dancerly physical acting is perfect for the role.   The faces and costumes are all artfully weathered and the color palette is a gorgeous mix of subdued browns and tans for the dust battered landscape with pops of color in the sky and clothing of the citizens of Asshole Junction. It looks like it could have been a gorgeous graphic novel in the style of Moebius’ Blueberry. The camerawork is stunning if a bit overdone (would it have killed anyone to throw in a few static mid-range shots here and there just to give the eye a break) and South African countryside provides a gorgeous stand-in for the high desert and sweeping vistas of Texas or Oklahoma. Director Kristian Levring was a former Dogme 95 director and I can’t help but feel that, having been let off the chain of extreme realism, he’s gone a bit effects crazy.


Altogether, not a bad evening at the cinema, but not a great one. If you’re looking for a great modern subversion of the western genre and like your movies with quite a bit of violence, may I suggest the Japanese remake of Unforgiven instead?