There’s no salvation here, just classic vengeance
Paying tribute to a dozen other classics before it, the English/Danish film The Salvation still finds its own voice and distinctive style, further fanning the flames of 2015’s Year of the Western.Driven by star Mads “Hannibal” Mikkelsen’s lead presence, and ably supported by a number of welcome familiar faces, The Salvation does not necessarily invest its time in telling a new tale, but still manages to feel surprisingly fresh – possibly thanks to its more international flavour – and offers up a backdrop developed just enough to ensure some measure of distinction.The tale is ultimately somewhat familiar, and done an injustice by yet another spoiler-dominated trailer.However, there are still a few surprises along the way, as Mikkelsen’s Danish settler, Jon, greets his wife and son after several years apart whilst he established a home for them in the American West. Unfortunately tragedy befalls them, turning Jon to violence. When the powerful gang that runs the local town discovers his actions, however, they look to make an example out of him, and with no support from the cowardly townsfolk it falls upon Jon to put a stop to their evil.
The Salvation doesn’t really trade too much in grey areas, dividing its characters into fairly black and white entities which give the narrative almost a comic book feel. But where the heroes and villains may be pretty clear-cut – even amidst the duplicitous townsfolk – the background machinations add an extra layer of intrigue, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s gang leader himself under the control of a bigger force that has darker plans for the town and the people within. Even Eva Green’s scarred femme fatale, has her own cards to play, spinning the fate of these characters into a realm of relative unpredictability.
Mikkelsen’s central presence is assured and powerful, and his character’s experiences abroad lend him the same air of mystery one might have given The Man with No Name, only with better explanation. Far from the almost mythical presence ubiquitous to Eastwood’s characters, however, Mikkelsen brings more humility and vulnerability to the role, although, ultimately, no less blood and violence – with nods to Unforgiven almost more prevalent as the piece evolves. Danish Director Kristian Levring, who has been dabbling in both English-language and original Danish productions for well over a decade, strikes out with this piece, taking note of the genre within which he wants to establish this defining feature – and of the classic films and trademark staples that are a necessary evil for any kind of western revenge thriller – and effects his art efficiently and stylishly.
Working within a limited budget, the evidence is only fleetingly noticeable in one or two shots here and there, with CG-enhanced towns barely capable of being distinguished from the real South African sets built, and day-for-night-style shots often playing into the distinct high-saturation feel to the piece, rather than standing out like sore thumbs. If character depth is not immediately evident, character distinction is far more prevalent, with everybody from Jon’s loyal ex-soldier best friend to the town’s preacher-sheriff standing out, and only perhaps Eric Cantona feeling a little out of place, despite his usual committed gusto.
Distinctive style and clever improvisations largely disguise the limited budget of this engaging little revenge Western.
There are several nice setpieces that define the action side of things, including a rain-drenched sequence that sees Jon hunting his prey in a burned-down ghost town, as well as some sumptuous broader shots boasting cinematography impressive enough to sometimes make you believe this is actually the Wild West and not the South African plains. Indeed everything about The Salvation is to do with trading in reverent nods to the classic Westerns, and playing out a familiar tale, whilst injecting some measure of distinction, both in style and substance.
Whilst it likely won’t define this year’s entries, it only further adds to the bevy of promising 2014/2015 Westerns, and becomes yet another one – after Tommy Lee Jones’s recent gem, The Homesman – which has delivered on that promise. And as the recently-released trailer for Michael Fassbender’s eagerly-anticipated Slow West, and the unstoppable buzz surrounding Tarantino’s typically all-star The Hateful Eight yet further prove, there is plenty more to come from The Year of the Western.
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