Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Salvation underutilizes the cool, mysterious presence of Mads Mikkelsen in a role seemingly unfit for the Danish export. He plays a Western hero of conventional sorts, marked by the tragic deaths of his family members as he seeks retribution and survival in a desolate landscape. The film comes from director Kristian Levring, who has not made a film since 2008, and he takes co-writing credits here with Anders Thomas Jensen. His absence from the screen potentially explains a disjointed narrative with undefined characters and clichéd motivations; characters are not so much defined by their actions as they are by their grander Western archetypes of old lore. A terrific supporting cast is mostly filler in these roles and the narrative wallows in violence far too much for my taste; instead of using exciting set pieces, the film instead opts for brutal acts of savagery that start to lose impact as they become pervasive. Tack on a non-speaking female role from Eva Green (the metaphor for feminine oppression in Western films is glaringly obvious) and the film feels like opportunities elbowing each other without breaking free.
The film centers on Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish immigrant who has worked seven years in the United States in hopes of settling himself for his family to move with him. When his wife and son arrive, they make plans for their future here: getting settled, Jon teaching his young boy how to hunt the following morning, etc. Something bad is bound to happen. On a joint wagon that is disrupted by two men who kick a friendly couple off their paid ride, Jon cannot stop the savages from threatening his wife and child. His wife is subjected to sexual assault while his son has a gun pointed at his head; the men ask Jon to jump off or they will kill both of his loved ones, and he’s left with no choice. He jumps. He then runs after the wagon all night before discovering his wife and son dead, and he kills the two men responsible. Yet now, with Jon’s loss of his family and all hope gone, a wild man named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) wants to avenge his brother (one of the rapists/child killers), pursuing Jon without remorse. Madelaine (Eva Green) is Delarue’s silent, submissive partner that wields wealthy but no power, aiming for a way out of her situation.
After Jon exacts his revenge, the film grinds to a momentous halt. The narrative propulsion from the admittedly drastic inciting incident should infuse the story with life and emotion. Instead, it feels oddly cold and distant. I think that’s a fault in the casting of Mikkelsen, one of the best actors emerging in the business today; after his most recent roles in The Hunt and television’s Hannibal, he’s proven to be a man that can handle emotional turmoil and cold composure. Yet this role is drastically unrewarding for Mikkelsen, never crafting him as sympathetic so much as pitiful. The characters surrounding him are greedy and kill-first, a horrible mixture of individuals showing the West as a disgusting cesspool of ethnic violence and morbidity. That doesn’t seem fitting. The desire for characters to move even farther West and acquire land could have made for a more compelling film, and recent Westerns like The Homesman and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma are drastically better, thematically similar films. The Salvation doesn’t feel like it salvages much, except for a remarkably small population of depressed individuals.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)