The Salvation. 2014. Directed by Kristian Levring. Screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen & Kristian Levring.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Michael Raymond- James, Jonathan Pryce, Alexander Arnold, Nanna Øland Fabricius, Toke Lars Bjarke, and Sean Cameron Michael. Zentropa Entertainments/Forward Films/Spier Films/F.I.L.M.S./Det Danske Filminstitut/Danmarks Radio (DR)/Nordisk Film & TV Fond/Film i Väst/Department of Trade & Industry of South Africa/MEDIA Programme of the European Union/Nordisk Film Distribution/TrustNordisk. Rated PG. 92 minutes.
I haven’t had a chance to see Kristian Levring’s Fear Me Not, starring one of my favourite actors Ulrich Thomsen. So prior to The Salvation, I’d never experienced any of his films. Two reasons I came to this film: i) it’s a Western with Mads Mikkelsen, & ii) Anders Thomas Jensen co-wrote the screenplay with Levring; I am a huge admirer of Jensen’s films, all of which feature Mikkelsen (Flickering Lights, Adam’s Apples, The Green Butchers, & most recent Men & Chicken), as well as the fact he’s written other great movies like the fabulous and touching In a Better World.
For a long time I’ve loved Westerns. There are a flood of them out there. Although, if you search through them well enough all the cream will rise to the top. The classics will always reign on high, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, High Noon, The Man with No Name Trilogy; then we’ve got the more contemporary, now classics like Unforgiven, The Proposition, Tombstone, and in my mind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So there are no shortage of Westerns, nor is there a lack of masterpieces in the genre. That being said, there are many typical Westerns, cliched to bits. Others, while not bad movies, just seem uninspired.
Along comes The Salvation. This film, from screenplay to actual screen, takes on the Western in familiar tones. But all the same, Levring and Jensen’s script tackles a Western revenge tale with an innovative twist, fresh eyes, and from a very emotional standpoint. Not to mention there are plenty of ways you can parallel this tale of the supposed American Dream in the minds of foreigners to the struggle many face today. This is a great film, it is beautiful to look at. Above all else, the actors each play a huge part in making the film come alive and raise the bar for the modern Western genre.
Danish-American settler Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been in the Land of the Free for a while now. He and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) have learned the language, they’ve tended their own land and looked out for one another. Plus, they seem to be integrated into the community. However, things change drastically for Jon especially once his wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally come to live there with him.
Upon their arrival, Jon takes his family by coach back to their home. Along the way, two men, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Voichek (Alex Arnold), accost Jon and his family. The conversation starts as only that, conversation, but the tone changes soon enough and the two strangers take Jon’s wife/boy hostage. Kicked out of the coach, he tries to run after them. Jon comes across the murdered corpse of his son. Then further down the road, he finds the coach – one man rapes his wife while the other takes watch outside.
After taking his violent revenge against the murderous rapists, Jon finds himself at odds with the local gangster Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose brother happens to be the aforementioned Paul. When the entire town turns their back on Jon, only his brother Peter stands by his side. That is, until Delarue’s men do the unthinkable to him, as well.
Standing against the insurmountable forces of Delarue and his henchmen, Jon Jensen is forced to take arms in order to have his revenge, or die in the process.
If you’re not immediately floored by the whole opening sequence (about the first 20 minutes), then I’m not sure what would affect your sensibilities. Fact is, without showing too much director Kristian Levring creates so much suspense, a thick and undeniably nasty tension, which drew me into the film’s world so savagely it honestly took me awhile afterwards to come back to my senses. Not only is the direction great, as well as the writing between Levring and Jensen, Mads Mikkelsen – a long time favourite of mine since his turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher & Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and recently his work as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s unusually amazing series – performs his character’s anger and woe so subtly it’s impossible to turn away from the power. I’m not trying to pit American v. European v. anywhere else actors here, not at all. However, there are certainly some (North) American actors who come to mind that are very exuberant, almost too much so at times. Especially when it comes to revenge styled movies, such as this one. For instance, even though I’m a Sean Penn fan (as an actor; not so much as a person), and I love his turn in the movie, Mystic River contains a pretty wild performance out of him – not at all times, though, in some scenes he is very much going heavy. Whereas in The Salvation, right out the gate, Mikkelsen delivers so much intensity and heartache without having to do anything overtly emphatic. He simply acts with all the emotion in him available, just seeping it out of his skin; the look on his face, his body language, the bunch of bullets he pumps into his family’s killer even after the guy is dead. And like I said, these are only the first 20 minutes (19 and a half if we’re getting specific). From there on in, Mikkelsen has lots more to do, and does it to near perfection.
Then we’ve also got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose performance as the big bad in this Western comes as a surprise to some. Not to me, though. Even while I’m not a huge fan of the Watchmen adaptation (it’s real good; just not as good as it should/could have been), Morgan impressed me as The Comedian. Also, my girlfriend watched a bit of Supernatural, and I found him pretty good in that. Then in the mediocre movie Texas Killing Fields, he was one of the only things I actually enjoyed a nice deal. But some people seem him as this good guy type. Maybe I’ve not watched enough of Morgan to feel that way. I see him as a guy with a dark side, even though I think he has good range. So here, in The Salvation, I was pleased to see him in a truly outright bad guy role. It doesn’t take long to figure him out, but not in a transparent way – you just feel how mean the dude is, right from his first appearance. It only gets more unpredictable and even more nasty once Morgan shows us how brutish his character Henry Delarue can become, to what level he’ll sink. Again, though, I have to say Delarue isn’t someone I could predict. There’s a moment, just before the half-hour mark (so much intensity so early), where you’ll understand exactly what I mean: I saw parts of it coming, but how he ends this confrontation is spectacularly harsh, and I couldn’t have imagined he was so cold. Not only is Delarue a bad, low man, he does have a tough presence, one of both physical and mental strength. It all sets the stage for an excellent showdown coming between Mikkelsen’s Jon Jensen and Morgan’s Henry Delarue.
Apart from the acting, Levring’s direction is what makes this film so special. Cinematographer Jens Schlosser provides us with lush visuals, from the wide open plains of the old West to the tighter, more personal scenes involving the characters and the well written dialogue of this screenplay. Schlosser has worked with Levring before on Fear Me Not, as well as served as Director of Photography on Amy Berg’s excellent/heartbreaking documentary Deliver Us from Evil (see it: an important piece of work). I find this one of the most visually exciting Western movies in recent times. John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is another amazing to look at Western from the last decade, though, that one has a gritty, more rough aesthetic. Regardless, I think this movie’s visual beauty has much to do with the emotional intensity and darkness of the subject matter/the performances. There’s a perfect contrast between how pretty the movie is and how devastating its plot and story are, it is a masterful bit of work from every angle.
Once more, I mention the script. So many revenge films are the same, just as Westerns often end up seeming after you’ve seen a ton. While The Salvation is typical in certain senses (rape-revenge setup), there are many ways in which it is not. For instance, like I mentioned earlier in my review, Levring doesn’t go and show everything full-on. Yes, much of the violence is pretty well spelled out in front of us. But I think the early bits, the rape of Jon’s wife, the murder of his boy, they were handled very well. I was very much expecting us to have to actually see Paul/Voichek humping Jon’s poor wife. Though, instead we get to see most of the after effects. This movie doesn’t glorify sexual violence, even if rape is at its core as a plot device/element. The effects and the revenge are the main point, that’s why everything brutal and nastily violent comes so early; literally, the first twenty minutes gets almost all of it out of the way, in terms of the injustice done to Jon’s family. We get lots of violent stuff after this point. Simply, it’s notable how Levring/Jensen go a different route than most would in this case. They still stick very much to the rape-revenge model, they’re just not relying on all its tropes and cliched moves to make things work. Furthermore, setting this is all in the context of Danish settler in America v. “born n’ bred” Americans is an interesting aspect, which you’re not always going to see except in a few other choice films of the genre. All in all, I’m amazed with the screenplay because I found myself unsure exactly of how things were heading to play out. Best part of the plot and story of The Salvation is how subversive it came across at times.
With a big Wild West showdown near the end that can rival some of the best, The Salvation is most definitely a 5 star film. It has guts, plus brains. Even better, the directing from Kristian Levring downplays the usual focus on the rape in order to get to the revenge. Instead, he opts to show us the savagery of the revenge at the other end on top of the heightened emotions from all the characters involved. And at times you’ll find yourself wondering exactly what is about to happen next. With the stellar performance of Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role, alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eva Green and Mikael Persbrandt in awesome roles respectively, this is a Western you can’t afford to miss. It has all the greatness of any other revenge-thriller, the heart and soul of a perfect drama. Not to mention it’s one of the best Westerns of the last two decades.