The Salvation (2014): Danish Western Holds the Cheese

Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation

Directed and co-written by Kristian Levring (the other writer was Anders Thomas Jensen) The Salvation  is a Danish western that holds the cheese with its reimagining of those Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s. However, where Leone’s  western tales were epic opera, Levring’s offering is more of a two note aria. Composer Kasper Winding has added a score that is vaguely influenced by Dominic Frontier and Ennio Morricone;  electric guitar and strings (violins, cello, et al) and it works beautifully.

The story itself also feels more European. As Leone used to re-write the “reality” of the old west to suit his needs, so too do Levring and Jensen. Mads Mikkelsen’s character, Jon Jensen,  is a man who left Denmark seven years previously with his brother Peter to set up a new life in America. The two immigrants were soldiers and Mikkelsen’s wife and child, Marie and Kresten,  have come over to join him.

The day the boy and woman arrive, they board a stage to head to their homestead and two men force another couple off the stage.  On the journey one man expresses interest in Marie and lifts her skirt, Jon tells him to stop. Guns are drawn and Jensen gets the advantage but when Kresten picks up the other man’s gun,  Jon’s son is grabbed and Jensen is then forced off the stage. He runs to catch up. Much later, he finds his son and wife dead. The two men on the stage have murdered the driver and his assistant and grabbing a rifle, Jensen kills the criminals.

Back in the town near his homestead, the local big wig, Colonel Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is enraged to learn that his raping, criminal brother has been murdered and demands his pound of flesh. If the sheriff (Douglas Henshall) does not provide the killer, or a scapegoat,  Delarue will kill two to four townspeople.

After killing an old woman, a legless man and one other hapless denizen, Delarue increases the town’s protection money. Shortly after the murders of the local innocent citizens, Jensen rides into town and the couple who were kicked off the stage, turn him into the sheriff. Jon and his brother are then arrested and the widower is given to Delarue.

There are problems with the film’s storyline.  At that point in time in the American West, the average town would be filled with veterans of numerous battles with the Native Americans who disliked all these immigrants coming into their land. There would also have been a number of Civil War vets as well. It is hard to imagine any group of people in that era who would allow someone to run so rough shod over them.

Despite the town’s people acting more like European villagers; bowing down to the local gentry, the film works on many levels.  Using the Leone template for westerns, Delarue is the local magnate who appears to be working hand-in-glove with an oil company. He is forcing the local landowners out, the mayor and undertaker Nathan Keene (Jonathan Pryce), works for Delarue  and swindles the people out of their property paying them a pittance for their land.

Shot in South Africa (predominately around Johannesburg)  the film looks brilliant, despite the decision to shoot in a digital format.  Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as the revenge seeking farmer who works his way through Delarue’s men. Jeffrey Dean Morgan chews up the scenery as Henry Delarue, much like a Shakespearean actor charging his way through a tragedy.

It is often pointed out that any film’s protagonist is only as good as it’s villain. Morgan gives us a evil and cold blooded despot who kills with impunity and cares nothing for the people in “his” town. Mikkelsen as the taciturn and stoic hero looks all the more impressive against such a foe.

Eva Green plays the mute, former captive of the indigenous tribe who cut out her tongue, widow (she was married to Delarue’s brother). Green, as Princess, proves that she can emote more with her eyes than most performers can orally. Pryce as the mayor/undertaker is suitably despicable and Henshall as the spineless “religious” lawman is priceless.

Perhaps the oddest addition to the cast is retired footballer (soccer player) Eric Cantona (“Ooh Ah, Cantona!”). The former “bad boy” from Man U is obviously  following the footsteps of another retired footie bad boy, Vinnie Jones, but seemingly with less ability.  Jones, who was one of professional football’s hard men, can actually act, Cantona just looks surly and speaks in monosyllables, hardly acting.

Levring uses a lot of the tricks of the trade from Leone. Big close ups, although not as extreme as the one’s Leone relied upon. The guns all sound like canons; howitzer’s would be quieter, and all that is missing is that distinctive “whine” of almost every Spaghetti Western gun shot ever heard on screen.

Some things in the film are never explained. Why, for example, does Delarue live in a town that has apparently been burnt to the ground, except for the charred remains of some buildings. Another question never answered is why Princess chooses to side with Jensen, apart from her “mutual” hate of Delarue. Or even why Eric Cantona is in this movie. He has, perhaps, one “standout” line of dialogue, (an in-joke surely, where he asks Mikkelsen’s character who he fought as a soldier, “Germans,” replies Jensen.” “You have my respect,” says the Corsican in return – before punching the farmer in the stomach. Cantona played against West Germany in his 1987 football debut.)

The Salvation is entertainment on a less epic level. One roots for Jensen to take out the overbearing thug Delarue. The film looks and feels like a variation of the old Sergio Leone faux westerns, right down to the buildings and the sets themselves. All that was missing were the gimmicks which ran through most Italian Westerns, the serape, the cigar and so on.

This is a 4.5 out of 5 stars for sheer entertainment. It does lose a half star for the plot, which does not make a great deal of sense in a western town in the 1870s. It would have been the loss of a full star if not for the kerosene and cigar scene. Solid performances all around and very satisfying despite the rather odd end scene and the storyline issue.