The major selling point of ‘The Salvation’ is the image of Mads Mikkelsen holding a shotgun in the Old West. It’s a pretty damn great starting point, given that there are few tough-as-nails character actors around these days that can say so much with so little.
Beyond that, there’s not much to the movie, to be honest. It’s a cut-and-dried Western revenge tale that gets right to the point and doesn’t fuck around. No masterpiece, but a damn good slice of genre thrills.
Mikkelsen stars as a Danish immigrant named Jon who spent the last seven years setting up his life in America and is finally able to bring his wife and son to their new home. Unfortunately, on the ride back from the train station, two nincompoops rape and murder his family. Jon instantly takes vengeance with a few rounds of ammunition. Regrettably, one of the men he killed was the brother of black-hat evil cowboy Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Delarue doesn’t take too kindly to the situation and has an entire town, including the mayor and sheriff, in his pocket. He goes after Jon hard with a gang of outlaws and an entire corrupted community behind him. He also has an abused woman (Eva Green) by his side, whom he purchased from some Native Americans that cut out her tongue. Like everyone else in the movie, she’s not too pleased about her situation. That pretty much covers it.
Dogme 95 co-founder Kristian Levring doesn’t dabble in any of the art house trappings that have defined his previous work here. ‘The Salvation’ is an unapologetically nasty Western with no fat on its bones. The characters might feel like clichés were it not for the fact that the dialogue is stripped so thin that there’s no room for depth. It’s a stylistic choice that allows the actors to strut their stuff accordingly.
The consistently underrated and underused Morgan delivers a vicious outlaw who intimidates with the growling intensity of a young Powers Boothe. Green continues her streak of strange roles that she transform into powerful femme fatales. Without a single line of dialogue, she creates a pained and deadly lady through a series of stony silent stares that always make her motivations clear. Everyone in the cast is strong, but Mikkelsen dominates the proceedings. It’s not ten minutes into the film before he has cause to glare with menace, and he never lets up from there. If there was ever a contemporary actor destined to play a strong silent Western avenger, it’s Mikkelsen, and he delivers fully on that potential. He’s so good that you’ll wish ‘Hannibal’ would wrap up soon so that he can get back on the big screen more consistently.
The South African landscapes where Levring’s crew set up shop make for atmospheric and vast Western vistas. It’s clear the director is heavily influenced by the Spaghetti Western era, and he loving crafts a series of larger than life images to heighten the impact and emotions of his simple tale. The film would be a start-to-finish visual stunner were it not for a handful of painfully cheap CGI effects that are a major distraction from the natural beauty.
The movie also has no real subtext, meaning or depth. ‘The Salvation’ is a work of pure visceral filmmaking and a throwback to a time when this brand of Western was a dominant form of entertainment. Since the genre has become so specialized now and anyone attending a Western expects genre inversions, some might be taken aback by the raw simplicity of the tale. Aside from the pretty pictures, this movie isn’t exactly art. It’s a nasty little genre picture, but a pretty darn good one for those who crave such gritty pleasures.