For a film titled The Salvation, not a great deal of saving or salvaging actually happens. It tells the story of Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), who presumably has to be saved from the peaceful life he had intended for his newly-arrived family by a baptism of blood. Was nowhere in the ever-expanding West safe way back when?”
Director Kristian Levering clearly loves Westerns. Nothing wrong with that, except he cannot distance himself enough from the tropes so beloved of old-school oaters. The Western is not a genre normally associated with Scandinavia (even if Ingmar Bergman did declare John Ford was the greatest of all directors), but The Salvation has a decidedly Nordic sensibility. Mikkelsen’s Jon is a Danish imigré and a former soldier, and the film opens with him welcoming his wife and young son off the steam train to their new life in the newly-United States of 1871. It’s a cliché to suggest Scandinavian auteurs must peddle a ‘life-is-suffering’ message, but Mrs. and Jr. are scarcely off the train when they are kidnapped. Jon gives chase just in time to find them dead and to exact his revenge on the kidnappers. All this happens in the first ten minutes; it’s a good thing the kid was there to be killed and manufacture audience investment, eh?
With blood on his hands, Jon faces a fight as gang leader Delarue seeks revenge for the men Jon killed. Delarue is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who must still be picking hunks of scenery out of his teeth, thanks to his blustery Yosemite-Sam act. As Delarue goes about his hunt for the cotton-pickin’ varmint what killed his men, Jon must fight to save himself and the local townsfolk from Delarue’s wrath. If that sounds hokey, blame Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen. The latter also wrote En Chance Til for Susanne Bier, so he knows his way around soapy, slapdash plotting. A high body count can cover up so many problems, but then in swans Eric Cantona attempting to look and sound threatening as one of Delarue’s henchmen, and the tension evaporates faster than camel urine in the Sahara. He is but one of a notable supporting cast left with sod all to do. The likes of Douglas Henshall, Mikael Persbrandt and Jonathan Pryce can only go through archetypal motions. The greatest waste sees Eva Green’s reduced to Delarue’s plaything, which wouldn’t be so bad if the character wasn’t mute. First Ethan Hawke in Good Kill, and now this. Casting directors: please stop casting such riveting talkers in (near-)mute roles.
The rest of The Salvation sees the upper hand flit back and forth between Jon and Delarue until an inevitable shootout ending with few surprises. The Salvation has all the materials for a gritty take on what many regard as a relatively-disposable genre. It’s only held up by the conviction of its leading man. Mikkelsen’s intensity is cut from the same cloth as that of fellow Scandinavian export Viggo Mortensen, rugged and brooding. He’s the reason to keep watching; this leading man leads this film through many a rough patch just enough to escape with his dignity intact. As for the rest of the film, there are only so many pretty vistas you can visit before you realize you’re going nowhere.