THE SALVATION C
Denmark Great Britain South Africa (89 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Kristian Levring
A conventional western with big named stars, shot in South Africa using painted backdrops resembling John Ford’s infamous Monument Valley in the American West, but unfortunately the viewer can’t escape the wretched excess of sadism that is so prevalent throughout this picture, from start to finish, as if similar themes from Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992) were used as a model of success. In truth, the excessive sadistic streak is a poor substitute for authenticity, as it hides and covers up the human dimension of these outlaws, making them one-dimensional characters that few of us have ever met in real life, as people are simply more complicated than that. This need to saturate Hollywood films in sadism is an unpleasant phase of the industry at the moment, where once it runs its course, perhaps they’ll get back to making good movies again. This Danish production is a reminder that immigrants once helped settle the West, building homes, working the land, and trying to survive in America’s unforgiving territory. Set in the 1870’s, following Danish wars with Germany and Austria in the First Schleswig War (1848–51) and the Second Schleswig War (1864), losing both, resulting in significant loss of land, after which there was a considerable migration of people overseas looking to start a new life, the film stars Mads Mikkelsen as Jon, an ex-soldier, now a peaceful European settler living in the American heartland with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) in a house they built. With both coming from Denmark seven years earlier to stake their claim and start a life, the film opens as Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius, Danish singer-songwriter and dancer better known by her stage name Oh Land) and 10-year old son arrive on a train to join them. Hopping on a stagecoach that will take them to their homestead outside of town, two gun-toting outlaws kick out the other couple that was supposed to be riding with them, turning this family reunion into a more ominous journey, where drink eventually gets the best of them, turning the outlaws into beasts, killing the boy, throwing Jon off the stage where he’s left for dead while they have their way with his wife. Following on foot, he tracks them down where they’ve killed the driver and his wife as well, wallowing in their drunken delirium, and shoots both men dead, a small recompense for what he’s lost.
After burying his wife and child, when he returns to the town of Black Creek he discovers one of the men he killed is the brother of notorious outlaw Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former officer of the Confederacy and a man who bleeds the town dry by intimidation, where the sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and mayor, who also doubles as the undertaker (Jonathan Pryce), both do his bidding, bowing down to his every demand. Delarue rounds up the town and tells the sheriff he has two hours to find the killer of his brother or he’s to pick two people from town that will be killed. An impossible task, they actually pick an old woman and a mentally challenged boy to be sacrificed, but for Delarue, that’s not good enough, as he continually escalates the stakes, murdering another man in cold blood for starters, claiming there will be more by the hour until they find the killer. Jon is implicated by a frontierswoman who helped him survive his perilous, near death journey, where his brother is thrown into jail while he is handed over to the outlaws, strung up on a post with both feet off the ground, brutally beaten, and left to rot under the hot sun as he considers his fate. The Princess (Eva Green), a formidable presence of a woman and the widow of the man he killed, has a large scar across her lips where she had her tongue cut off by Indians, supposedly rescued by that scoundrel of a husband. She controls the business end of this band of cutthroats with her air of upper class sophistication, wearing only the finest garments money can buy, becoming something of a fashion plate out in the middle of nowhere. With his brother gone, Delarue takes advantage of the situation by ravishing the Princess, forcing himself upon her with a certain degree of arrogance and relish, where it’s obvious she has nothing but contempt for this man. One of the problems with the Western convention is the reliance upon cliché’s, where good and evil become moral absolutes, where bad men are such loathsome examples of a depraved humanity that they become caricatures of the psychotically deranged. Delarue is a direct descendant of Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett deriving such sadistic pleasure in UNFORGIVEN.
It doesn’t take much effort to figure out that the two brothers will ultimately have to stand up to this gang of killers before a cowering town of weaklings, following in the footsteps of Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON (1952), but before the day is done, blood will line the streets of Black Creek which will come to resemble a town of corpses. Because of the exaggerated way it complies with western expectations, much of this is inadvertently humorous, where some of the dialogue is so over-the-top that it comes across as overly stereotypical. Using plenty of CGI digitally altered images, there are majestic desert landscapes that suggest an endless frontier, but the Delarue ranch lies in the middle of a bleak and barren desert where nothing grows, where they actually have buzzards circling overhead as Jon has another near death encounter. Rescued by his brother however, who makes his own clever escape, it’s clear these two have their work cut out for them. Because of Jon’s weakened condition, Peter hides him in the mountains while he sets off in another direction, hoping to confuse the tracking killers, but in no time at all Jon realizes he must face the end of the journey alone. Meanwhile, the Princess takes advantage of the confusion surrounding the prisoner’s escape to make her own run for it, taking the money from the vault and heading for the train out of town. While there’s some degree of suspense to her efforts, especially after she believes the train has safely begun to move, but the approach of men on horses seals her fate as she is captured and led back to the ranch. Rounding up some kid from town whose father was murdered right before his eyes, Jon sets out to singlehandedly accomplish what no one else has dared by standing up to these killers. It has the look of a military operation, where each attack comes in phases, but there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. Mikkelsen, as always, is simply outstanding, as is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as his ruthless counterpart, but no one else in the cast distinguishes themselves in this rote version of a classic western standoff, where the outcome is all but determined before the first frame is shown. Even the music by Kasper Winding is a conventional Hollywood score, where despite Levring’s best efforts, there’s nothing particularly surprising or inventive that he brings to the genre.