Mark Reviews Movies

The Salvation


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kristian Levring

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Michael Raymond-James

MPAA Rating: R (for violence throughout)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 2/27/15 (limited); 3/13/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 12, 2015

The Salvation opens with a tragedy that is as cruel as it is random. After seven years away from his native home of Denmark, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) has finally made something of a life for himself in some part of the territories of America, 1871. His wife and son have remained overseas, waiting for the word that it's time for them to join Jon in their new home.

The time has come. Jon's wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and 10-year-old son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke), who—since he was a toddler when Jon left home—must be introduced to his father, arrive by train in the small frontier town of Black Creek. They will take a stagecoach from the station to their new home, which Jon has renovated and extended to accommodate his family.

His wife doesn't speak English, he tells a kind married couple who will be riding in the coach with them, but she'll learn. His son worries about the animals that might be living by the house—particularly bears. If there's a bear, the father tells his son, they'll kill it and sell the skin in town, which isn't too far away, so there's no need to worry about being away from civilization.

By this point, the married couple has been replaced by a pair of men. One is drunk and still drinking straight from the bottle. The other is silent. The drunk man talks with Jon, starts eyeing and complimenting Marie with vile intentions behind his eyes, and then turns those intentions into action. Jon isn't helpless, but he has too much to lose in the ensuing standoff. The two men know and take advantage of that fact.

After seven years apart, the family reunion—the promise of a content future where a husband will help a wife learn English and a father will teach his boy to hunt—lasts mere hours. Jon's wife and son are dead—killed by the hands of complete strangers whose only purpose in the world seemed to be to cause suffering and misery. The strangers are also dead—killed by a rifle that Jon retrieves from the scene of the slaughter. Jon repeatedly cocks the rifle and fires into the dead man who ruined his life until pulling the trigger only results in an empty click.

Kristian Levring's Western starts with this extended sequence, and it is harrowing—filled with hopelessness and chance violence. This is an unapologetic West—a place where masses of dark clouds turn dusk and afternoon alike into darkest night, where oil seeps up from the ground to form a steaming cauldron of sticky blackness, where the flame-charred and ruined section of town has become the residence of a murderous gang of outlaws who have a twistedly Biblical sense of justice. Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser don't make room for any visual subtlety here. The land is either drenched in rain and/or shadows or scorched by a pitiless sun.

One of the men whom Jon killed was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the leader of that gang. The town's sheriff (Douglas Henshall) is also the local minister, and Delarue expects that the lawman, also being a man of God, has heard of the concept of a "tooth for a tooth." Delarue gives the town two hours to find the man who killed his kin. Knowing it's a hopeless task, the sheriff and the mayor (Jonathan Pryce) offer up two people as sacrifices. It's not enough for Delarue. He still wants his brother's killer, too.

From here, the trajectory of the screenplay by Levrin and Anders Thomas Jensen should be clear. It's disappointing that the movie, which begins with such a strong sense of moral murkiness and casual injustice, descends into a rather generic tale of revenge, featuring the bold heroism of a lone defender of justice juxtaposed against the cowardice of a town that is equal parts corrupt and pathetic.

That, of course, is the way of the Western, although one this starkly launched and realized on visual level keeps us wanting a little gray area between the black and white extremes. There's a throwaway line about Delarue being the victim of some kind of posttraumatic stress after participating in the government-sanctioned killing of Native Americans, but the revelation almost laughably unconvincing after seeing the extent of his "evil soul," as an elderly woman says about Delarue before he puts two bullets in her as "retribution" for the killing of his brother. Eva Green plays a character known as "Princess," who comes around to the good side after a sudden realization that she has been hanging around the bad guys for a chunk of her life.

As a predictable tale of righteous violence in the Old West, The Salvation is somewhat effective. Levring displays a solid control of tone and awareness of locale (Beyond the look of the movie, the climactic shootout is staged and choreographed with constant attention toward where the participants are in relation to each other). It almost feels unfair to mark down the movie solely on the basis of its formulaic, uninspired narrative, but that such a move is necessary should also be an indicator of just how formulaic and uninspired that narrative is.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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