In an age when all Westerns are niche items usually defined by some sort of post-modern reexamination of the genre, there’s something refreshing about the simplicity of The Salvation. Even though the Danish production comes from Dogme 95 co-founder Kristian Levring and flaunts its stoic art house darling Mads Mikkelsen all over the marketing material, The Salvation is essentially an exploitation movie. Sure, the movie has a gently otherworldly aesthetic and few subtitles, but the stripped down nasty simplicity that Levring employs has more in common with Walter Hill or Death Wish than anything remotely artistic. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, it certainly makes for rip-roaring entertainment with an edge. The only trouble is that Westerns don’t get mainstream releases anymore and the grindhouses are long gone. So the audiences walking into The Salvation might be heartbroken by the complete lack of subtext. Thankfully, those few who show up for the illicit thrills should leave satisfied.
The movie opens with the image of Mads Mikkelsen smiling. It’s a jarring moment to be sure, but don’t worry that smile is wiped off his face quickly. Mads plays a Danish immigrant who has spent the last seven years setting up a new home for himself and his family in the ol’ West. The story kicks off with Mikkelsen finally picking up his wife and son from the train station to begin their happy new life. Unfortunately, on the ride back from the station, Mads’ wife and child are raped and murdered. Mikkelsen instantly takes shotgun revenge on the men responsible and that’s where the real trouble starts. You see, one of the men was the brother of the meanest damn outlaw in the land (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He’s a man who doesn’t just have a gang of bandits, but a whole town under his thumb and he doesn’t take too kindly to brother-killing shenanigans. He wants revenge on Mads and will use all of his murdering powers and resources to get it. He’s also got a ladyfriend played by Eva Green whose tongue was torn out by a gang who kidnapped her. So she’s got plenty of brooding anger as well. This story won’t end pretty.
That’s pretty much it in terms of plot and even that suggests slightly more complexity than Kristian Levring desires. The film is a work of stripped down minimalism as a stylistic choice. The characters and scenarios might all sound instantly familiar because they are, but the filmmaker overcomes any predictability traps by stripping the dialogue and plot down so severely that things need to stay simple just so the audience can follow the minimalist action beats. This is a work of straight up genre satisfaction and hits all the necessary beats to deliver the goods. Levring took the production to South Africa and combined with a little digital color-tweaking that creates vast empty Western vistas that feel slightly off. It’s impossible to put your finger on what’s different, but that’s there and much like the Spanish-shot Spaghetti Westerns the location lends the movie an off kilter feeling. Levring never lets up on the violence or action either, delivering a nasty nightmarish vision of the West influenced more by the European Western productions than anything from Hollywood. The only visual element that feels off is the unfortunate inclusion of cheap and unconvincing CGI in a few sequences that really grind the movie to a halt and should have been cut.
Predictably, Mads Mikkelsen delivers one hell of a sullen murderous performance in the lead role. His weathered face and expressive stony sneers were made for the genre and the widescreen cinematography spends just as much time studying his expressions as the landscapes. He brings just the right combination of gravitas and bad-assitude to the role to make you sad that The Western isn’t a particularly viable genre anymore because this guy could easily carry a few more of these movies. The entire cast surrounding him are strong character actors, but two particular performances stick out. The inexplicably underrated and underused Jeffrey Dean Morgan dives into his nasty blackhat bad guy with devilish glee. He struts his evil stuff across the screen with the hardboiled charisma of a young Powers Boothe and reminds viewers why he should be getting more work in absolutely anything. Then there’s Eva Green who is on a streak of transforming strange roles in bad movies into wonderful contemporary fatales in titles like 300: Rise Of An Empire and Dark Shadows. Here Green delivers a completely silent performance that always makes her inner life clear and frequently out intensifies any of the men on screen. Its yet another reminder of Green’s immense talent. Hopefully she’ll soon start getting roles in movies more worthy of her gifts.
The Salvation is a good ol’ blast of rip-roaring revenge entertainment and nothing more. It’s pretty too look at, satisfyingly structured, overflowing with violence, and grounded by a collection of excellent performances. It’s the sort of movie that would have gotten pulses pounding in exploitation movie house in the 70s and unapologetically values visceral sensation above all other artistic concerns. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, it’s just important to expect that going in. Given the pedigree of the talent behind The Salvation, you might expect some sort of art house Western revival. You won’t get that by any stretch of the imagination, but all the good sleazy fun involved should make up for the hollow core.