A Danish Western with the magnetic Mads Mikkelsen, Kristian Levring’s The Salvation is gorgeous to look at but as hollow as a Ten-gallon hat.
Western By Numbersby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Kristian Levring’s Danish Western is as seemingly distinctive as it is outrageously clichéd. On one hand you have the vibrant and unique costume design, the beautifully stylised visuals, and the Mads Mikkelsen. On the other, outdated gender politics, weak characterisation and a slavish reverence to almost every cliché the genre has dished up since The Great Train Robbery. In spite of its formulaic and run-of-the-mill narrative, The Salvation can be an entertaining film that proudly wears its ‘style over substance’ creed on its sandblasted sleeve – think Sin City meets Dodge City. With the talented ensemble cast reduced to tumbleweed in this one-horse town, Mikkelsen does just about enough to keep you hanging around until sundown.
The year is 1870 and Danish immigrant, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), has been building a life for his family in the American west. When his wife and son join him from Denmark, they are soon after killed by drunken outlaws. Turning peaceful pioneer into vengeful hunter, Jon kills the men responsible unwittingly invoking the fury of outlaw leader, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Delarue is brother to one of the slain outlaws and lays siege to the local town killing residents until his brother’s killer is found.
There’s an intriguing juxtaposition in the opening minutes of Kristian Levring’s film that puts Danish settler Jon and his family in a carriage with rowdy and increasingly sinister Americans. It’s an early glimpse of one of the often under-explored narratives of the American frontier in film. The cultural gulf between both nationalities is stark, not only in language but in manner, and hints at a novel approach to a film set in the Wild West. Disappointingly, this cultural insight into expatriation in the late 1800s is short-lived, and Levring’s film rapidly dissipates into Western by numbers. The clichés come faster than you can say ‘You callin’ me yella?’ and distractingly, before long, you’re anticipating the next cliché with every tired old set-up.
One of the more damning indictments on Levring’s film are the archaic gender politics that see every female character hovering around the fringes of the shot or simply objects to suffer the indignities of mans cruelty. In the midst of all of the violent and dominant man folk, Eva Green is Madeline, a mute who bears the scars of violent abuse at the hands of Indians. Suffering in silence, it’s a thankless role for Green who does everything she can to inject the character with a personality you imagine was largely absent in the script. From an historical viewpoint, the subservient women of the story are most likely accurate, but, in truth, where The Salvation is fast and loose with history anyway, it’s remiss for it to fail its female characters so flagrantly.
That being said, it’s not only the women who draw the shortest straw from writers Levring and Thomas Jensen’s script. The vacuous characterisation is prevalent throughout, and in spite of a clever turn from Eric Cantona, the talented ensemble cast are merely pins for lead Mikkelsen to knock down. Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks and sounds like the ‘big bad’, but the wafer-thin characterisation renders him largely ineffective. Aesthetically, there’s an awful lot to enjoy – the costume design from Diana Cilliers is sleek and sexy and the saturated vistas captured in Jens Schlosser’s glorious cinematography are by far and away the films strong suits. The mixed palette of rust and gold lighting bathes Mikkelsen’s otherworldly features in a manner that makes him look every inch the icon of Danish cinema that he is.
Levring is so hell-bent on tipping his hat to the Sturges, Ford and Hawks’ Westerns of old, there’s little to nothing unique about his film. What appears in press notes to be a film with a fresh perspective on the Old West is disappointingly inverse to that. Ultimately, The Salvation can be an enjoyable film in fits and bursts with Mikkelsen in the lead, it’s gorgeous to look at, but as hollow as a Ten-gallon hat.
The Salvation is released on 17th April 2015 in the UK