As much as we love the western genre, it appears Danish director Kristian Levring, (who was the fourth signatory of the Dogme95 movement, film history fans) loves it more. His “The Salvation,” which plays in the Midnight Screenings section of Cannes, is a testament to that — a loving and in fact overly adulatory genre film which is not so much a take on the revenge Western as a deeply faithful recreation of it, at times so faithful as to veer dangerously close to pastiche.
Despite the casting of 2012 Cannes Best Actor Mads Mikkelsen, who is as effortlessly compelling and committed as ever in the central role, there is something inauthentic about the whole endeavor, as the film wastes its one true claim to originality — the Danish angle — in favor of mouthing the words, wearing the clothes and walking the swagger of the John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone movies Levring and co clearly worship. And so as intermittently fun, and as good to look at as the whole thing is, it does feel like a bunch of guys having a lark playing dress-up rather than a story that really needed to be told, or a film that really needed to be made. But as en ersatz western, it will do in a pinch until a real one comes along.
The overfamiliar plot shakes out as follows: a Danish immigrant, Jon (Mikkelsen) who has been building a life in the American west for eight years with his brother (Mikael Persbrandt), meets his wife and young son, whom he has not seen in that long time off the train. But their reunion is short lived, as already on the stagecoach from the station, their two travelling companions turn out to be violent, drunken brigands who succeed in throwing Jon from the vehicle to have their way with his pretty wife. Wife and child murdered, Jon kills the men super dead as soon as he catches up to them and we learn that he is of course, a crack shot. But we subsequently discover that one of the dead men was the brother of local baddie Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, eternally looking up gimlet-eyed from beneath the brim of his hat) whose idea of justice is to demand the town, under the spineless leadership of the mayor/coffin maker (Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff/priest (Douglas Henshall), proffer two people from its number for him to execute in retribution, and to double the “protection” tax they owe him until his brother’s killer is found.
The film is so generic that we can count its original elements on the fingers of one hand: firstly, and most drastically underused, there’s the émigré experience that is teased as being a fundamental element of the story in the prologue, but turns out not to be –Mikkelsen’s Jon could easily have been an American for all the difference his Danish backstory makes. This is the chief wasted opportunity here, as the foreign provenance of so many settlers in the Old West is an often overlooked and potentially fertile fact, and the few hints we get of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings could, if emphasized, have lent much-needed texture. Secondly, there’s the photography, courtesy of DP Jens Schlosser, which is appropriately crisp and lush, especially at night when everything is color graded to an inky blue-black palette and falling rain looks like oil.
Thirdly, there a single scene in which the sheriff provides a tiny bit of context for Delarue that goes some way to answering the basic question of why no one has killed the bastard yet–it seems he used to be a good man, but ridding the territory of Indians turned him violent and mean. This would be a welcome shade of ambivalence for an otherwise cartoon baddie if it were ever picked up on or referred to again, but it ain’t. And fourthly, we have the Eva Green character, who was “rescued” from an Indian tribe, who had tattooed her and cut out her tongue, by the now-dead Delarue brother, who then made her his bride. Delarue himself has been lusting after her for years and moves quickly to claim her after her husband’s death, but her own thoughts and motivations are mysterious and ambivalent, and mysterious ambivalence is one thing Green can do better than almost anybody. Her subplot, involving an attempt to run away adds a spark of interest away from the relentless linearity of the rest of the film, but, as so much else, it’s frustratingly underdeveloped, so the concluding alliance between her and Jon feels more narratively inevitable than earned and satisfying.
Elsewhere all is business as usual for a western right down to the regressive gender politics which see the womenfolk largely marginalized or ignored, when they’re not killed in the first ten minutes, or mute. And the genre’s typically dodgy celebration of rampant individualism and vigilantism is here amped up to a very high volume–the small community is so cowed by fear that it collaborates in its own terrorization, and it takes a lone man doing what he’s gotta do to rescue them from their fearful stupor. The bad guys are venal, violent rapists or two-faced collaborators who deserve the many bullets it takes to kill them, and the good die young. It’s all extremely familiar from the very many (better) films that “The Salvation” refers to, and perhaps that’s the chief issue. Levring, in contrast to the idols he emulates, hasn’t made a film about the American West, he’s made a film about the American Western, that doesn’t ever refer to anything but the movies, to the tropes and rhythms of a genre he seemingly admires too much to embellish or reimagine. It’s ironically this slavish devotion to great films that have gone before that sets Levring’s film at such a distance from them, because if they are the genuine articles, “The Salvation” is little more than an extremely affectionate fake. [C+]