The Salvation (2014)

salvation_2014_poster
The Salvation (2014)
  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Drama | Western
  • Director: Kristian Levring
  • Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona

Storyline:

In 1870s America, a peaceful American settler kills his family’s murderer which unleashes the fury of a notorious gang leader. His cowardly fellow townspeople then betray him, forcing him to hunt down the outlaws alone.

2 reviews

  • Kristian Levring’s great Danish western draws less on the American classic than on Sergeo Leone’s operatic extension. Hence the soft-focus opening on a railroad station, as if the Leone set of Once Upon a Time in the West has receded in memory — as the ideals of the American west have. Like Leone, Levring uses the western to examine contemporary America and how far it has strayed from its original ideals. Where Leone used the western to address America’s engagement in Viet Nam, Levring’s interest is America’s contamination by and sellout for — oil.
    The nation’s Edenic lure to immigrants figures in Jon and brother Peter coming to America to escape the ravages of Denmark’s war with Germany. After seven years Jon brings over his wife and son, only to have to imperil his and his brother’s lives to avenge their rape and murder.
    In the last shot the camera pulls back from the villain Delarue’s charred ruins of empire, revealing a landscape of primitive wooden structures drilling for oil. In the classic western the villain is the unvarnished outlaw or his civilized successor, the imperialist rancher or the banker. Here the villainy is in the oil oligarchy, the corporation that hires Delarue to drive out the settlers, buy up their land too cheaply, all the while maintaining the pretence of law and order. That is the new “civilization” in name only.
    Delarue sells the town “protection” like an ur-Mafiosi. The germinal town has an undertaker mayor and a preacher sheriff — both emblematic — who cowardly submit to Delarue while futilely waiting for help from the remote feds. In an early scene the town serves up a legless man and a widow to try to appease Delarue’s vengeance. That surrender evokes Obama’s appeasement of Iran.
    We’ve met the oil in passing. It lurks under the town’s name, Black Creek. In a few shots it’s a burbling infernal pool, like a living evil force. It has contaminated the well water. Worse, it contaminates the roots of American society here, as it undercuts the town’s feeble attempt to bring civilization to the desert. It poisons the promise of freedom and equal opportunity that has lured generations of immigrants to America. And still does.
    The film contrasts two pairs of brother. Delarue glosses over his wild brother’s tendency to rape and to murder, to justify his vengeance. Peter and Jon risk their own lives in each other’s defence, Jon finally driven to avenge Peter’s death. In morally opposite ways both prove themselves their brother’s keeper.
    The mute Madelaine comes to embody a more courageous and moral America than the town officials. Captured by savages, who cut out her tongue, then corrupted by the Delarues’ business, she tries to escape after Delarue forces himself on her. The corporate villains have brutalized her badly as the supposed “savages.” When the righteous citizens want to kill her Jon intervenes. By saving him from Delarue she has earned her salvation, as Jon earned his by avenging his loved ones’ murder.
    Of the townsfolk only the murdered woman’s grandson moves to help Jon, fatally. He, Jon and Madelaine, by their active will and uncompromised values, earn the salvation that the town seems undeservedly to get. But those oil derricks suggest otherwise. The town has been saved from the Delarues but the more pervasive poison of the oil wealth looms. That brings us back from the wild west of myth to our too sadly real now.

  • Review: The Salvation
    October 9, 2014

    “Do not forsake me O my darlin’ / On this our wedding day,” go the opening lines of the classic western theme song “The Ballad of High Noon.” The subsequent lyrics outline the plot of Fred Zinneman’s High Noon: the anticipated noontime showdown between Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and Frank Miller and his gang. As the townsfolk and even his new bride (Grace Kelly) urge him to leave town before the shootout, Kane struggles to listen to his conscience and hold steadfast to his convictions. There’s little of that crisis of conscience in The Salvation, Kristian Levring’s Danish take on the western genre, which spins many of High Noon’s elements into a variation of the retribution drama.

    Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a sheriff but he is a peaceful man. Survivors of the Danish defeat in the war of 1864, Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) crossed the Atlantic and spent seven years away from Jon’s wife and son in order to establish a home and a future in Black Creek. Their reunion is tragically short-lived when, during their stagecoach ride home, drunken men jettison Jon to rape his wife and then kill her and his son. Jon claims swift justice but vengeance begets more vengeance: one of the murdered men was brother to Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the movie’s big bad, who swaggers into Black Creek with his posse (which include footballer Eric Cantona) to lay down the law to the town’s mayor (Jonathan Pryce), who doubles as the undertaker, and sheriff (Douglas Henshall), who is also a man of the cloth: bring him his brother’s killer by high noon or bring him two of the townspeople as sacrifice.

    The Salvation is a surprise from Levring, considering his charter membership in the Dogme film movement which mandated the exclusion of technological tricks and assistance in favour of focus on narrative and perforamnce. The film is generic in its narrative and certainly doesn’t offer anything new to the genre. It is, however, one of the most visually breathtaking entries with South Africa doubling for the American frontier, necessitating CGI application on some 900 shots.

    The sweeping grandeur of the landscape is steeped in foreboding, which may speak to the Danish sensibility, and it’s hard not to be enticed by such resplendent compositions: Jon holding his son’s lifeless body against the inky blue backdrop of a moonlight sky; the geometric arrangements of the participants in the suspenseful final showdown; even the deep purples of the coats of Delarue’s gang or the rich red of Jon’s bandana tickle the eye.

    As the forsaken groom, Mikkelsen is magnetic, conveying so much with the minutest of motions. His horrified reaction to having to choose between leaving his wife and son to an uncertain fate or staying on the stagecoach to watch them die before his eyes will grip your heart as will a later scene as he watches his brother dragged by horseback by Delarue and his men. Persbrandt, well-regarded in his native Denmark, makes a strong impression as Peter, especially in a scene that has him calmly goading his jailkeeper. Eva Green, playing a mute (the character seems a riff on Natalie Wood’s in John Ford’s The Searchers), uses her expressive eyes to full effect.

    Honourable mention to Kasper Winding’s flavourful score, which merits a far superior showcase than Levring’s satisfactory but seen-it-before offering.

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