As the oldest film genre – the first ever feature, The Story of the Kelly Gang, arguably qualifies as one – the Western weaves a well-worn path through the cinematic landscape.
There are certain elements we’ve come to expect from tales of those rangy, ranging men, like the redemptive arc of our hard-bitten protagonist, and those we haven’t, like an abundance of CGI. The Salvation has both, though sadly neither of which is particularly well executed.
Directed by Dogme95 founder Kristian Levring, The Salvation follows Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish immigrant and former military man, reunited with his family after seven long years. However, the carriage ride to their new home veers towards tragedy when their two vicious fellow travelers in Jon’s wife and son. Soon enough there’s nothing to be done but carry out his inevitable vengeance, which Jon does with vicious expertise.
Under other circumstances that would be that, and Jon could return to his homestead with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), to grieve. However, one of the men Jon has killed just happens to be the brother of the gruff, sadistic posse leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He uses the incident as reason to crack down on the inhabitants of a local town run by the venal, badger-bearded Mayor Keane (Jonathan Pryce), who’s conveniently also the undertaker.
With the town against him and Delarue out for blood, Jon and Peter find themselves caught up in a scheme involving petroleum seep and a ruthless land grab by money men from the north.
The Salvation is content to play homage: Jens Schlosser’s grainy, washed-out cinematography feels like a budget version of Tonino Delli Colli’s from Once Upon a Time in the West; the blond-haired, blue-eyed Persbrandt bears a striking resemblance to Peter Fonda.
With its exploitation-style tagline, “Bad Men Will Bleed”, the film definitely knows what side its unleavened bread is buttered. Mikkelsen has a face made for suffering, sun-burnt and stretched in agony, and the flashing, defiant eyes of Eva Green – reuniting with Mikkelsen for the first time since Casino Royale – make the most of her presence as a scar-lipped mute. The Salvation’s meager budget, though – roughly five million dollars – proves an unassailable obstacle.
The South African veldt may pass for the dusty plains of the Old West, especially when shot resolutely in soft focus, but the film’s inability to realistically render a building on fire ruins the immersion.
That The Salvation’s cast distractingly extends to one Eric Cantona, as Delarue’s evidently Gallic sidekick The Corsican, confirms the film’s credentials as a European co-production; it’s just a shame they couldn’t spare enough cash to get the flames right.
The Salvation just about holds together architecturally – there’s even an ostensible theme running through it, that of justice versus retribution – but it just never comes together artistically. The motif of one-eyed man is appropriate given the film’s lack of depth perception.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what Levring’s film is really about, other than being a Western. Save your time and money on this one and maybe wait for the DVD; it might look better on a small screen.