Not unlike the horror genre, it is almost a requisite for modern western films to pay homage to the great western installments of the past. The Salvation is not an exception to this rule, but that is not to its detriment. The first shot alone is a lovely blend of John Ford’s The Searchers and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. But beyond the stunning vistas of the American frontier and the intricately constructed makeshift towns, Danish director Kristian Levering also has something to say about this period in American history, namely our disgraceful treatment of immigrants and Native Americans alike. The film is both sweeping and intimate, and at 92 minutes, both poignant and deliberate.
Our hero is Jon, a Danish immigrant living in the 1870s Wild West with his brother. As a former soldier in the Danish army, he understands the importance of patriotism and loyalty to one’s country, but like so many in that era, the opportunity America offered was too lucrative to ignore. At the beginning of the film, Jon meets his wife and young son after seven years apart. He is excited to live out the American Dream he established and waited so long to share with his family, making plans with his boy to teach him to hunt and live off the land. Such optimism is short lived in this period of history, and almost as soon as he reunites with the two most important people in his life, they are murdered in a merciless jolt of violence. But the rest of the film does not concern Jon’s path to retribution. In fact, Jon finds the rapists and murderers responsible at the scene of the crime and disposes of them in a swift and relatively composed manner. Instead this inciting event simply propels forward a cycle of revenge and brutality that ensues through the rest of the film, resulting in dire consequences and ample collateral damage.
Jon is not the typical John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type although he is lethal with a rifle and has little to say. He is played by Mads Mikkelsen, best known as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and as the titular character on arguably the best television show few have seen, NBC’s Hannibal. Mikkelsen’s work here is everything the film needs, providing the warm paternal spirit in the opening scenes while assuming the clenched jaw relentlessness in the rest of the film. As The Salvation progresses, Jon becomes less a man than an ideal, embodying the force of good to oppose the evil infesting his town.
That evil comes in the form of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose brother was one of the men Jon killed. And although he wears a black hat, an archetypal villain adornment, he fails to be a harbinger of absolute evil, as much as the script by Levering and Anders Thomas Jensen positions him as such through excessively cruel actions. The brunt of which is levied at the people of Jon’s town in an attempt to find his brother’s killer and exact his own revenge. Such violence towards his fellow Americans is attributed to the savagery he committed as a former army colonel against the indigenous populations that first inhabited the West. Without giving too much away, when Delarue’s true intentions are revealed, they contradict his actions to an extent, and what could have been a great modern Lee Van Cleef incarnation falls neither in the camp of a ruthless menace nor a conflicted opportunist. He ends up serving what the story requires of him more than being a fully fleshed out character.
Speaking of the townspeople, it is not hard to understand why they would concede to the demands of Delarue and his band of outlaws. Western towns such as theirs pop up out of nowhere just as easily as they can be razed to the ground, and we see examples of both in The Salvation. In a community—if it can be called as such—where the town sheriff is also the local preacher and where the town undertaker also serves as mayor (both may be choices by Levering that are too on-the nose), there is little loyalty shared amongst the town’s citizens. As a result, Jon is quickly given up to Delarue, but the townspeople did not do it for the greater good or even for the good of the town. They did it to survive and see the better tomorrow America promises—an idea so entwined in capitalism and manifest destiny that it is no wonder why immigrants and Native Americans were treated so harshly. There may have been states in the American West, but there was little that made them united.
Among the oppressed—but for different reasons—is Madelaine (Eva Green), who we learn is the widow of Delarue’s brother. We also discover that she is a mute, but not by choice, seen only by the large scar that runs across her lip. As Delarue takes her to be his own, in what is another example of his grotesque but incongruent behavior, she too becomes swept up in the film’s streak of revenge, and while her characterization is likely a bit too obvious, she becomes a critical player by the end of the film.
What is left is an entirely serviceable western, beautiful to behold and anchored by superb performances. While some camera movements are too virtuoso for their own good and threaten to take you out of the period, the somber mood of The Salvation permeates throughout from the committed attention to detail in production design and lighting. In fact, the lighting—especially in nighttime scenes—seems to allude to a divine presence. But though “In God We Trust” is stamped on our currency, the only salvation to be had in this place and time is through sweat—and even more often through blood.