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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Salvation


U.S.-Danish: Kristian Levring, 2015

The movie Western is a durable genre that has sometimes fallen on hard times. But that genre gets a powerful reworking from a couple of knowledgeable foreigners—not-so-gloomy Danes Kristian Levring (director-writer) and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen—in the  Go-Eastwood-Young-Man revenge shocker The Salvation.

The reviews for this sometimes mesmerizing oddity have been mixed (mostly good). But it’s an  often terrific show, lyrical, explosive and idiosyncratic — a Danish horse opera set in the American wild old west in the post-Civil War early 1870s, shot mostly in South Africa, and starring Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Casino Royale). Mikkelsen is good at heroes and villains and men in-between, and here he plays a persecuted hero forced to act like an outlaw: robbed of his family, brutalized by bastards, beaten, left for dead and hell-bent for revenge.

The movie reminds you of a lot of others: the Eastwood-Leone “Dollars” Trilogy, High Plains Drifter and High Noon, to name a few. But that’s not really a shortcoming. You always get the sense that Levring and Jensen are enjoying themselves, making this movie as much (or more) for love as money. The scenery, which deliberately recalls the barren desertscapes of John Ford’s Monument Valley, is overpowering and stark and gorgeous, the atmosphere tense and menacing, the characters pungently alive.

As the beleaguered protagonist Jon, traveling West with his family, Mikkelsen gives a magnetic performance. And so do Mikael Persbrandt as his stalwart brother Peter, Eva Green as Madelaine (a beautiful, scarred, mute badgirl/goodgirl), Jonathan Pryce as Keane, a weasely and corrupt mayor and undertaker, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as  Delarue, a  bad and  vicious, yet very slick, leader of a gang of psycho gunslingers — depraved killers who almost make the Clanton Gang look like Mouseketeers.

Once the bread-and-butter mainstay genre of the American film industry, the movie western has undergone an evolution since its heyday, and you can see a lot of that change in The Salvation. What was once a practically sure-fire moneymaker — from the early days of William S. Hart to the later era of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood —  has more recently become an exoticized art film market aimed at smaller, more demanding audiences of film buffs and genre devotees. That’s what happens here. It’s a Western for Western-lovers, or worshippers from afar. One man’s (or woman’s) archetype is another’s stereotype.

The story begins with the introduction — back in the 1870s — of Jon (Mikkelsen), his beautiful wife Maria (Nanna Oland  Fabricius) and their lovable young son Kresten (Take Lars Bjarke), all about to be plunged into a nightmare.  Soon after the opening shots, Marie and son are tormented and killed  by two maniacs from Delarue’s  sadistic gang (including Delarue‘s brother) — and when Jon and Peter find and kill the killers (which in this violent milieu, seems the least they can do), they immediately win the lead spot on Delarue’s shit list.

To make matters worse, the brothers discover that the local townspeople, cowed by the gang, will offer no help or refuge. (Best of the townspeople is an old woman turned hostage,  who defies the tyrant for a few moments, and then is shot down to die like a dog.) The rest of The Salvation, which details Jon’s and Peter’s battle against Delarue and his gang,  is full of scenes and lines and moments you’ve seen and heard before, but not always this well-done, or this strikingly set and shot, or  acted with such colorful intensity.

The influences are obvious:  Levring and Jensen recycle the familiar but well-loved routines of Western master John Ford (and his many followers and borrowers, notably Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Anthony Mann),  with their moral quests and the spectacular  arid majesty of Monument Valley — the site of Ford classics like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers. Then we get the operatic sights and sounds of spaghetti western king Sergio Leone,  with his  gunfight symphonies and revenge librettos (in the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West.)  Zinnemann’s High Noon  (still a classic despite Hawks’ dislike of it) is recalled for its social messages and  its suspenseful condemnation of a town too cowardly to stand up for justice. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is remembered for its gallery of peckerwoods and its virtuoso violence. Finally we get some nods to Eastwood for  his mystical/archetypal  scenarios about dastardly villains and loners triumphant — especially Unforgiven and High Plains Drifter, whose ramshackle town seems to be replicated in Levring and Jensen‘s slapped-together-looking Black Creek. There are even some side views at other genre classics like Shane, The Westerner. Johnny Guitar and Seven Men from Now.

Because of this elaborate string of references, we pretty much know what’s going to happen: Delarue will become more and more of a monster and a menace. The climactic showdown between him and Jon and whoever else is left, will assume greater and greater weight. And the townspeople of Black Creek, like the citizens of  High Noon, — from the Blacklist era, when  its blacklist victim screenwriter (Carl Foreman) wrote it — will simply stand, or hide, and watch and wait for High Noon — with its ticking clocks moving inexorably toward noon, the time of the showdown. Eventually, we  feel the loneliness and desolation that also washes over Kane and later over Mikkelsen’s Jon. And despair mixed with exhilaration is what Salvation’s filmmakers want us to feel.

I love Westerns — the good ones that is — though I’m more dubious and less forgiving about the modern  urbanized street westerns that have in large measure, replaced them. That genre has a few masterpieces — Dirty Harry and The French Connection and Bullitt among them —  but it‘s not up to its wild west predecessors. Nevertheless, The Salvation is clearly done by filmmakers who love Westerns like I do, and it’s’ one of the best post Leone, post-Eastwood neo-westerns.

Since Eastwood passed 70, and stopped acting as much, Mikkelsen may be the best actor in the world for parts like this. His simmering quietude and hurt-looking stares serve this movie well. So do the wordless reactions of that equally dangerous heroine Madelaine, played by Eva Green, and the Gorge Clooneyesque good looks and ruthless, slick  immorality of Morgan. It matters little that we’ve seen characters like these (and the others) before. Their very familiarity is a good part of what lets us enjoy them — just as the basic familiarity of much of the best Ford and Leone propels us enjoyably into those fantasies as well.

The blend of visual scenic beauty and dramatic violence (the cinematography is by Jens Schlosser), which are also integral to the Kurosawa samurai classics), was always one of the Western’s main attractions, and the modern revisionist way we now tend to look at Western American history (especially the history of the Native Americans) is part of what, perhaps understandably,  killed a lot of these movies off.  There have been some good Westerns (The Coen Brothers’ True Grit) in the past few decades, as well as some ridiculous ones (Cowboys and Aliens, Depp’s Lone Ranger). But the full-scale revival we might have liked never happened. Moviemakers can still make some good ones though, and this film and True Grit show how — though some critics will still see clichés where we’d prefer archetypes.  As for the great years of the Hollywood movie Western — of Ford, Hawks, Mann, Leone and Eastwood — I guess, in large measure, they went that-a-way.

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