It’s hard to understand our relation to the past today, especially in America. Africa, Europe and Asia had ancient history, but the USA only really has the Old West. This country has no real history, and most of its people came from other parts of the world. The immigrants would funnel into New York City to get away from the Old World, looking to build a better life. The West was unpopulated and barely governed. Most small towns were ruled by the man who could hire the most guns. If we think things are bad today, we really don’t understand how it was when people could be gunned down with little consequence. Sheriffs were often scared, alone, and afraid that each day could be their last. Most people tried to stay to themselves and avoid getting shot. It was a dirty and bleak life.
The Salvation is one of the most brutal and unrelenting westerns I’ve seen in a long time. It calls up all the ghosts of the genre, especially the strong, silent Clint Eastwood of the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. It’s funny, because this isn’t an Italian western but a Danish western, but it was filmed in South Africa. It takes place in the classic Old West town ruled by a ruthless and unpredictably mean gunslinger called Larue (Jeffery Dean Morgan). The landscape is typical of a thousand westerns with locals that could be in Wyoming, Arizona, Texas or any locale where the law was meek and in short supply.
It starts when Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) welcomes his wife and son as they arrive by train after a long journey from Denmark and seven long years apart. Mikkelsen is best known as TV’s Hannibal and the villain in Casino Royal. Here he is the good husband, happy to have his family back with him. They get on a stagecoach with a Spanish couple who are urged to get off by two vaguely sinister men. They do not argue, and they made the right move, because things soon get very ugly.
Mikkelsen is perfect as a former soldier who knows how to fight battles with stealth and lethal precision. As the movie progresses he has less and less to lose, and his determination is almost mindless in its relentless drive. Morgan as the cocky villain is perfect as well, and everyone is scared of him, including his partner Madeline (Eva Green), his dead brother’s widow. Jonathan Pryce is Keane, the weak-willed mayor (and coincidentally also a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies). Actually both Mikkelsen and Green were in Casino Royale, and the chemistry in this film is perfect. Madeline is mute through out the film because she had been captured by Indians years before and they got her tongue. One gets the impression she hasn’t been treated much better by Larue and his men. The stage is set for a very high death count.
What makes The Salvation special is how it takes an unexpected turn of making a foreign immigrant the main character. A veteran of foreign wars from years before who tried to leave his past behind him falls readily back into the persona of lethal killer. He wants no help, but finds it anyway in a town that harbors many buried regrets.
It layers on all the elements that work best in this kind of movie. It is no-frills and direct. The violence is real and brutal and beautifully cinematic. The director, Kristian Levring, is part of the old Dogma gang that started with Lars Von Trier, and Levring had directed a stunning film years ago called The King Is Dead about a busload of traveling actors stranded and starving in the desert. It was as brutal a film in its own way as The Salvation is.
Westerns are hard to come by in recent years, and people may have forgotten how good they can be. The Salvation is no revisionist western but the real deal. It’s a hard-core, old fashioned shoot em’ up. The tag line is “Bad Men Will Bleed”. Believe me, they do.