When you kill someone, make sure they aren’t the roughest, toughest outlaw’s baby bro.
After being separated from them for a very long time, Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is finally reunited with his wife and son. Now feeling as if he can start his life anew, the trio set out for new land, but getting there is only the first hurdle they have to overcome. Though they didn’t expect it, they end up taking a carriage ride with a boozed-up, slick-tongued cowboy (Michael James-Raymond) who messes around and even threatens Jon and his family. Jon clearly doesn’t take too kindly to this, but before he knows it, his son and wife are killed. Jon takes matters into his own hands and kills this baddie, but little does he know that the baddie just so happens to have an older brother; one that won’t take too kindly to random people killing his family members. That man, gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), makes it his life’s mission to find out who killed his brother and do whatever the hell he, or his mute sister-in-law (Eva Green), wants done to this justified killer.
It’s very hard to add much of anything new to the western genre. Sure, people try it and sometimes, come up big, but more often than not, they end up just treading the same water that’s been tread since the days of the John Ford westerns. That isn’t to say somebody can’t make a fun, even mildly interesting western, it’s just hard to do so and make sure people actually see your movie and take it in for what it is: A game-changer. Clint Eastwood had the luck of being Clint Eastwood when he made Unforgiven, and Kevin Costner, although the movie itself wasn’t such a hit with most, at least had the luck of being Kevin Costner when he made Open Range.
Both are westerns that have put a neat spin on the western genre we’ve all seen so much of, which brings into question just how many really great westerns are left out there for us, the rest of the world, to discover?
I honestly can’t answer that question, but I can say that the Salvation comes pretty damn close. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie, because while the Salvation may not be the end-all, be-all game-changer that the western genre so desperately needs, it still offers up a fun, exciting and sometimes fresh look inside the genre, without ever trying to make any grand statements about humanity, life, or death. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, revenge-tale, that also just so happens to take place in the wild, wild West.
So what’s so wrong with that?
Nothing really, especially since Danish director Kristian Levring seems to have a deep love for these kinds of movies, and doesn’t have a problem presenting them as simple as humanly possible – man’s family gets killed, man takes revenge, man gets hunted because of said revenge. It’s all so damn simple and old-fashioned, but it actually works in the movie’s favor. There’s not much time for characters to take a seat, chat about their own mortality, or even pass-off some general idea about life that we don’t already have in our heads as is; there’s just an awful lot of shooting, screwing, boozing, robbing, and killing. Basically, the way all westerns should be, with some heart and humanity thrown in there for good measure, although that’s not to say that a movie lives or dies by that. Sometimes, being entertaining is all you need to be, in order to get a pass from most audience members.
But thankfully, the Salvation has a little bit of both. Sure, it maybe has a whole lot more violence going on and around, but there’s still something of a heart that’s seen to be intact that makes the proceedings all the more compelling, rather than just having people shoot one another, and not even giving us a chance to care. Because this lead protagonist, Jon, was thrown into a desperate situation, and acted out in a desperate, totally understandable way, we wholly understand him as a character, as well as a human being. That’s why, when push comes to shove and he’s forced to commit some downright dirty acts, it’s hard to have a problem with him; he’s just trying to survive, as well as he should, considering he didn’t do anything wrong to begin with.
Which is to say, mostly thanks to Mads Mikkelsen and his skillful way of expressing any sort of emotion, without muttering even a single world of dialogue, Jon gets a lot of mileage. Mikkelsen’s been a favorite of mine for quite some time now (a love that’s only been heightened by my most recent binge of Hannibal), but here, he does what he needs to do: Make Jon seem as simplistic as possible, but never dull. He’s just a normal person like your or I, except that he’s been thrown into a not-so normal situation, and has to get out of it anyway possible. He does both good, as well as bad things, but Mikkelsen always makes it seem believable and have us even wonder whether or not he’s exactly as of a law abiding citizen as he may have initially given off.
That said, it’s not Mikkelsen’s show we’re dealing with here. Everybody gets a chance to play and roll around in the sand for as long as Levring sees fit. Eva Green, another favorite of mine, gets a chance to show her range as an actress, by not being able to say anything at all in this movie, and instead, show us everything we need to know about her at any given moment, based solely on her emotions. It works, and also shows that female characters don’t need to say macho, hammy bullshit dialogue that’s better suited for dudes to come off as bad-ass; sometimes, all it takes is a simple act of violence, and a shotgun in their hands. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s another one who gets to play around a bit, but honestly, by now, I think everybody knows that the dude loves playing a-holes.
Just not as much of a funny one, is all.
Consensus: Though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel for many westerns to come, the Salvation, thanks to the no-nonsense direction from Levring and its lovely assemblage of performances, still comes off like a solid enough watch that doesn’t need to try too hard.
7 / 10