By Jacob Wampfler
Mads Mikkelsen is a sneaky-great actor. The first time I saw him on-screen was in Casino Royale as the devilish villain, Le Chiffre. At that point, I was truly intrigued by the man named Mads. Already a star in his native Denmark, I wanted to see more of what Mikkelsen had to offer. Following this revelation, I watched him in in the mind-bending Valhalla Rising as a Viking gladiator named One Eye. In that film, he logs one of the most physical acting performances I have ever witnessed. And then a TV series called Hannibal began. Mikkelsen, playing the deranged killer in that series, has been touted by some as the best Hannibal Lector of all time. While the show has since been cancelled by NBC (with yet a glimmering hope of revival on another platform), the three seasons of television on a major network have launched Mikkelsen to the next level. With casting in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and rumored negotiations for an upcoming Doctor Strange film, Mikkelsen will likely have a much broader audience in the near future. This simple fact is what makes films like The Salvation all the more appealing and unique.
We don’t see many Westerns anymore. Actually, let me rephrase that: we don’t see many Westerns anymore that aren’t riffing on, paying homage to, or flat out destroying one of the richest and most exhaustive genres of cinema in the history of film. The Salvation, while it seems to be doing one or two of the above, sat with me long after my first viewing. In fact, the more the film sits with me, the more I realize that it was a Western truly on its own terms. While the tropes may have been evident, The Salvation and it’s slow, plodding narrative weaves a welcome entry into this genre of years gone by.
For starters, it’s plot is simple. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), is a Danish settler in America, seeking to make a life for his family. He was a soldier in his native land, but after losing to the Germans in 1864, he sought new life on the frontier. After seven long years of establishing a homestead with the help of his brother, Peter (stoically acted by Mikael Persbrandt), Jon’s family arrives. The film begins as his wife and son get off the train to join him in a truly lawless land.
Within the first ten minutes of The Salvation, the viewer is exposed to a gruesome and sorrowful plot development. Even in the earliest stages of the film, how could things possibly get worse? This is a Western about revenge…and it gets much worse for nearly every character in this bloody landscape.
From an acting standpoint, The Salvation is a marvel to behold. Mads Mikkelsen plays Jon as a man whose singular purpose in life is to avenge the unspeakable evil committed against him. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a borderline cartoonish outlaw named Delarue, and stands as the personification of greed in the film. Delarue is the more concrete aspect of an abstract thematic element that comprises the final shot of the film. Eva Green simply stuns as Madelaine, Delarue’s widowed sister-in-law. Left mute by natives who claimed her tongue, Green emotes rage, fear, and determination without the use of her own voice. One of the most amazing female talents currently on-screen, Green shows beyond question that she could have been an actress in any past era of film (especially the silent film era). Even Jonathan Pryce makes an appearance as a cunning mayor/town undertaker who gets his due, both good and bad. The Salvation is a superbly cast film, and the performances are excellent all-around.
The overarching thematic elements of revenge and greed in The Salvation are encapsulated within cinematography and score that may be the biggest nods to the Western genre contained in the film. Wide angled shots of sparse, dry horizons accompanied by eerie, guitar-laden music alert the viewer that this is a film from another time, another place. Under Kristian Levring’s deft and minimalistic direction, The Salvation is a balancing act between the familiar and the unknown.
I love Westerns. At this point, The Salvation (or any other Western, for that matter) can’t aspire to be “new” within this historic genre. However, what it sets out to do, it does well. This may be the defining characteristic of new films in a genre some have deemed dead and gone. The Salvation has a story to tell with well-crafted narrative and complex characters. In my opinion, that’s a film and a Western worth viewing.