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The Characters in 'The Salvation' Are Easy to Care About but Terrifying to Watch

Mixing the classic themes of the American western with splashes of modernity makes for a attention-grabbing tale of salvation.

The Salvation

Director: Kristian Levring
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Distributor: IFC Films
Rated: R
Release date: 2015-08-04

In the refreshingly insightful special features section of Kristian Levring’s The Salvation DVD, many of the actors discuss their attraction to the project, with almost all citing the fact that they simply could not turn down a role in a true western. Many of the sentiments were the same, they were actors who fell in love with movies through westerns. It's safe to say that it 's no coincidence that most of the interviewees were of the same generation. Westerns are not exactly lighting up the box-office as they did in their heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t make a resurgence, or that they haven’t been here all along, just with some alterations.

Today the box-office is sufficiently dominated by superheroes, but when you delve more deeply into why this is, you will find that westerns are not all that different. For one, you have a hero. Usually a good looking man who, although with his own personal turmoil, is unquestionably the primary draw. There's also a bad guy — or as the cast members in The Salvation call it a “baddie”. He's almost, but not quite, as good looking as the good guy. The villain has his motivations but they are most often a little less pure than the hero, thus making his actions, although sometimes similar to the hero, seem all the more dastardly.

This formula worked for the western, making it easy for studios to produce movie after movie. This formula has also worked wonders for the superhero genre. While superheroes obviously have the advantage of having other-worldly powers and plenty of CGI, the basic plot points remain similar, just instead of explosions and robot attacks there are shootouts and horse chases.

This comparison is not meant to condemn either genre. They are simple and sometimes repetitive themes, but that's because they work. Kristian Levring, one of the founding members of the Danish Dogme 95 movement of the mid-'90s, has long waited for his chance to try his hand at the old-style American western. What is impressive is that The Salvation does not simply pay homage to the classic western, but stands completely on its own.

Another thing that Levring nailed was landing Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. There exists no acting career that intrigues me quite like Mikkelsen’s, who is just now gaining more widespread notoriety through his work in the now-doomed, but largely critically praised, NBC take on Hannibal . Here he plays Jon Jensen, a man who moved to America in the wake of war in his home country of Denmark. The Salvation begins with Jon awaiting the arrival of his son and wife, whom he hasn’t seen in the seven years since he left for America.

The Salvation’s story is not all that intricate. It's not giving anything away to reveal that tragedy soon befalls the Jensen family, leaving Jon to ultimately avenge the murder of his wife and child. We soon learn that the murderer is connected the most evil man in the film’s small universe, one Henry Delarue, played with the perfect mix of rough and crazy by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. This leads Jon into more trouble than he could have imagined, making his search salvation become instantly more high-stakes.

As I mentioned, both superhero and western movies need two sides, the good and the bad, but what moves some of these films from decent to great is when the narrative blurs these lines. While The Salvation begins to play with this notion, it doesn’t quite satisfy. Sure, Delarue has a right and arguably a responsibility — especially in the manly world of the western — to avenge his brother's murder, but when only moments after introducing his softer side we see him murdering innocents, it’s kind of hard to see his point of view. In another scene involving the town sheriff/preacher, the narrative tries to explain Delarue’s madness by revealing his past as the main force of resistance against the area's many Indians, but this comes off more like an ambitious grasp at justification than true explanation.

One thing you can’t help but notice in The Salvation is the spare use of dialogue. Screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen lets the talented acting team express pain and suffering through facial expressions rather than emotional exposition. The raw anguish we see in Mads Mikkelsen’s face as he watches his last remaining family member be dragged away says more than he could share with a sobbing heart-felt monologue.

The Salvation and its creators are not shy about what they are trying to accomplish. There are few ambitious moments in the film, whose twists and turns are not exactly impossible to see coming. Still, The Salvation succeeds in exactly what it sets out to do: create a western whose characters are alternately easy to care about and terrifying to watch. Levring also injects enough splashes of modernity, including heightened violence, intricate fight scenes, and some cool tracking shots, to satisfy a contemporary audience. The Salvation, or anything like it, will not outsell the next Avengers movie, but for those who appreciate exciting tales of good verse evil, this is a film that will wholly satisfy.


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