The Salvation

Director: Kristian Levring (2015)

Saddle up for this exciting and cynical Western shot through with murder, revenge and rape.

When a peaceful farmer swaps his ploughshares for pistols to exact retribution on his family’s killers, it results in a deadly feud threatening the interests of the rich and powerful.

Having reinvented police procedural TV dramas, the Danes cheekily train their sights on the archetypal Hollywood genre.

They deploy the usual dramatic furniture of six-guns, shoot-outs, saddles, saloons and a safe full of money – then dress them up with biblical overtones and contemporary issues such as government corruption and environmental concerns.

Filmed in South Africa with a European, predominantly Danish cast adds to the new perspective, emphasising the sweeping immigrant nature of the US of the period.

Seven years after serving in the Danish army in the 1864 war against the Germans, brothers Jon and Pete (Mads Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt) are living a hardscrabble farming life in the US West.

They are finally joined by Jon’s wife Marie and son Kresten (Nanna Oland Fabricius and Toke Lars Bjarke) on the frontier.

Kresten is now a young teen while Marie is an elegant porcelain beauty in pale blue and blonde, appearing dangerously delicate in her new rough and dusty surroundings.

Travelling by stagecoach to Jon’s smallholding, Marie and Kresten are savagely murdered by a pair of recently released criminals. It’s the first of many terrifically tense scenes, played with minimal dialogue.

Though Jon exacts bloody revenge and kills the men, one of them is the brother of a vicious gang leader called Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

He in turn wants revenge and holds the local townsfolk of Black Creek accountable until Jon and Pete are apprehended, leading to a violent and gripping showdown.

With a brisk running time of 91 minutes, the dialogue, direction and editing are delivered with a considered economy, consistent with Mikkelson’s controlled central performance.

In a role requiring her not to speak, Eva Green  shows what a strong actress she can be as Madelaine, Delarue’s disfigured sister-in-law.

Jonathan Pryce is as excellent as ever in a small but pivotal role as Mayor Keane, who in the manner of rural communities, doubles as the undertaker – an essential role in many Westerns.

Former footballer turned thespian Eric Cantona plays a henchman known as The Corsican, glowering from under his beetlebrow with menace.

His appearance is only incongruous if one’s strongest memory of him is turning out for Manchester United. But we should remember he’s been acting for the best part of twenty years. There’s nothing wrong with his performance; he’s pretty good.

Co-written by the director, the script is sharp with clear character motivation and well constructed conflicts fuelling consequences of greater acts of violence.

The violent personal dramas play out on a broader social canvas; the church and the law are under the control of Delarue who is playing a far bigger game than the townsfolk realise.

There’s a commentary on how corporate America uses military mercenaries to bully elected representatives, the law and the Church and serve their own interests over that of the people.

None of this slows down the action but enhances it by providing context and motivation. A dead body is deposited next to a pool of oil, the only building left standing in a burnt-out town is the bank.

As well as missing legs and tongues, there are many mutilated teeth and eyes befitting the biblical criteria for justice. Fire and water are elemental punishments, adding to the well-crafted Old Testament atmosphere.

Cinematographer Jens Schlosser burns his daytime colours. His rain lashed night-times have ferociously heavy and apocalyptic shadows.

Costume Designer Diana Cilliers dresses the cast in a variety of colours to reflect the swathe of languages and accents we hear from the throng of immigrant nationalities.

Just as in the 1960’s the non-Hollywood talent of Sergio Leone could use his perspective as an outsider to rejuvenate a well-worn genre with his operatic Spaghetti Westerns, so too does Levring.

Although operating on far smaller scale, he re-invigorates the genre with a passionate energy and fresh location. The magnificent South African landscapes are an imposing spin on using the venerable Monument Valley as a backdrop to the action.

Not only do they have the requisite majestic expanse but they hark back to the era of John Ford and John Wayne, steeping The Salvation in cinematic history and modern day excellence.

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