There is an ongoing theme in the films of western master John Ford, this theme is basically the birth of America. Ford’s westerns looked very much to the west, his characters were making their way out west or his stories a metaphor for their journey. But his characters were very American. But so many of the people who made the journey out west in the nineteenth century had started their journey much further east, in Europe. Two and half centuries after the Mayflower America was still a country being built on immigrants and inhabited by immigrants. Danish director Kristian Levring has captured the essence of both Ford and the era with a European character at its heart.
Set in the 1870’s after seven years, Danish settler Jon is being joined by his wife and child. On the way home they their paths cross with a stranger that begins a downward spiral of events. I don’t want to spoil the plot any further, but the fact it is a revenge movie tells you as much as you need to know.
There was a time when westerns were genre movies churned out with huge regularity and varying quality, these days they are less common and tend to be a labours of love. Like so many modern westerns, it is impossible to watch without comparing it to classics of the genre but this isn’t always a bad thing. In The Salvation you can see elements of other great westerns. The against odds defiance of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959), the impending doom of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), the evil spectre of big business of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) and most of all the revenge of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). But there is something else going on; more than just a subtext, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) there is a sense of things coming to an end, that things will never be the same again, an end of innocence.
Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast, his stoic performance is exactly what the film needs, mirroring the harsh landscape and brutal story. Forgoing the flamboyance of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) for a more classic western, but don’t think this is Dogme goes west (Kristian Levring is one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement). This is a stylish and stylised movie. The presence of Eva Green is a masterstroke. I was initially dubious of casting an actress with such an amazing voice in a silent role. Like Rinko Kikuchi in Babel and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion she manages to be the most interesting character in the film. There are a couple of moments a simple and slight turn of the head conveys as much as five minutes of dialogue. She manages this twice in the film with two different meanings.
It isn’t a film to bring new people to the genre but fans of westerns will love it. I think I wrote my article Best Westerns Since Unforgiven a few weeks too early as this would have made the shortlist.