The Salvation is a dark, violent, nihilistic western, but there's also something comforting about it: This is the sort of western they used to make when the genre was still thriving. In particular, it feels like one of Clint Eastwood's '70s westerns; a bloody tale of revenge and hopelessness with aesthetic roots in the spaghetti westerns of the '60s. It's not quite as rich as the best of the films it imitates (it most strongly resembles the excellent High Plains Drifter), but The Salvation is largely the sort of solid, no-fuss genre outing I'd like to see more often.
The film is set in the American west, but the central figure of the story is an outsider. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal) is a Danish settler who has been in the U.S. for a few years. At long last, his wife Marie (Danish singer/songwriter Oh Land) and ten-year-old son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke, In a Better World) have made the trip overseas to join him. The happy reunion is short-lived: within hours of their arrival, Marie and Kresten are murdered by a sneering outlaw named Paul (Michael Raymond-James, Terriers), who is subsequently murdered by Jon.
Under most circumstances, this would be the brutal end to a sad story. Here, it's just the beginning. It turns out that Paul was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen), one of the most feared gang leaders in the west. He has long ruled the local town with an iron fist, and is so angered by his brother's death that he orders the mayor (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil) and sheriff (Douglass Henshall, Primeval) to produce two local citizens as a human sacrifice. The town leaders nervously offer an elderly woman and a crippled man. Henry shoots them both, then executes another local resident for good measure. He tells the mayor that he'll be doubling the town's protection fees until the real killer is found.
While there are moments when the film perhaps pushes too far in an effort to make Henry seem like the most evil man on the planet, Morgan brings a cold-blooded gravitas to the table that's never less than convincing. We're told that he was once a good man, but that something inside him snapped back in his military days, when he was tasked with slaughtering Indians. Henry may be a monster, but he's a monster that America has created. The town was built on senseless killing, so it's no surprise that senseless killing remains a part of daily life for these people. Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) have little interest in helping the town defeat Henry, but Henry certainly has an interest in finding Jon.
This is a tale of revenge, but it's also a reminder of the futility of revenge. On multiple occasions, both Jon and Henry have the opportunity to simply walk away and restore peace. Both refuse to do so, insisting that they must have the last word in this bloody fight. Yes, most of Jon's actions are justified while most of Henry's actions are rooted in mere cruelty, but that doesn't change the fact that both men are directly responsible for the deaths of people they care about. There's a lot of collateral damage in this war. This is a predictable story in many ways, but not a dull or dishonest one.
Dialogue tends to be fairly spare in The Salvation, as most of the characters only speak when they deem it absolutely necessary (the exception is Pryce's mayor; a nervous chatterbox who tends to overexplain everything). The lines are terse and tough, but the film makes a point of casting people with remarkably expressive eyes. There's a profound sadness in the faces of both Mikkelsen and Morgan, silently suggesting that both men realize that the world they once dreamed of is now in ashes. There's striking (but unforced) symbolism in the film's climactic shootout, as the remaining characters battle their way through a burnt-out ghost town. After all that's been done, what's left to fight for?
The most expressive eyes in the film belong to Eva Green (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), who plays Madelaine, Paul's mute widow (we're told that her tongue was cut out by Indians when she was young). Now that Paul is dead, Henry has decided to claim her for himself. Green's fierce, defiant face is the film's most striking image, and her performance is the film's most unique element (the one thing that doesn't feel borrowed from anywhere else). When Jon and Madelaine look at each other, they form an instant unspoken connection: not mutual affection, but mutual rage.
The Salvation was directed by Kristian Levring, a veteran of the Dogme 95 movement whose previous work includes the strange King Lear adaptation The King is Alive. This time around, he abandons the tenets of that movement and focuses on making the sort of slick, polished production that Don Siegel would've been proud of. Though the movie shares a good deal in common with spaghetti westerns, Levring doesn't go overboard with outlandish cinematography or musical tics (the twangy score by Kasper Winding reserves its big moments for a handful of crucial scenes). His status as an outsider makes the film feel more like a condemnation than an apologetic admission: a survey of America's past which finds precious little worth preserving or celebrating. The closing shot feels like one last gut-punch: a sobering reminder of what our country really values. We live in a much different world, but some things never change.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2015