The genre may be as American as a slice of hot apple pie, but instead of a scoop of vanilla a la mode, the sun-drenched Hollywood style western is at its best when served with a dish of revenge that's ice cold.
But although former Dogme 95 filmmaker Kristian Levring distills the tried-and-true recipe of the western down to the most basic of ingredients in The Salvation's classically constructed blend of old and new that owes much to High Noon, the end result is anything but ordinary.
Centered around two brothers who emigrate to the United States to build a better life for their loved ones after serving in the Danish War of 1864, the film opens on a heartbreakingly tragic note when the all-too-brief reunion of Mads Mikkelsen's Jon with his newly arrived wife and son (both of whom he hasn't seen in seven years) is cut short by unspeakable violence.
After quickly dispatching the monsters responsible for taking their lives, Jon finds himself forced back into battle when Delarue, the murderer's even more dangerous outlaw brother (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) arrives both out of the blue and out for blood.
Another veteran from another war (this time in the states), as the sheriff explains, Delarue hasn't been the same "good man" since "killing all those Indians unsettled his mind." However, the weak lawman – like all the rest of the frightened townspeople – are only too willing to let John and his brother Peter fend for themselves while giving Delarue's fickle nature and itchy trigger finger free reign to sacrifice anyone in sight and call the shots.
Infusing the admittedly simple premise with layers of surprising complexity, Levring and his talented co-scripter Anders Thomas Jensen draw unexpected western inspiration from Nordic sagas and Viking lore.
Additionally, the old-fashioned period work is timelier than ever given the film's focus on the PTSD that has afflicted both the battle-scarred soldiers as well as those caught in the horrific crossfire of war that find themselves unable to locate peace, like Eva Green's traumatized mute widow.
Having collaborated with powerhouse performer Mads Mikkelsen multiple times over the course of the past twenty years of stunningly diverse and ever-challenging post-Dogme '95 filmmaking, Levring and Jensen know precisely what their own brand of gladiator/brave-heart is capable of bringing to the table.
From casting him opposite an actress of tremendous depth who can convey so much without speaking a single word in the form of Mikkelsen's Casino Royale costar Eva Green to the moving material on the page, the screenwriters provide more than enough fuel to light a four alarm fire within the soul of their unflinchingly tough yet emotionally tender lead.
While the words and actions of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s larger and louder than life villainous Delarue deafen like a shotgun fired at close range, composer Kasper Winding's gorgeous guitar-laden score does more than just fill the space left by the rest of the otherwise soft-spoken cast of characters by managing to reveal in music that which their silence cannot.
Along the way, The Salvation pays homage to the golden age of Hollywood westerns by aligning itself with the structure and symbolism of High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Shane.
And while it's considerably less showy than both Howard Hawks's allegorical late '50s Noon takedown Rio Bravo and less revisionist than some of the contemporary efforts produced since the end of HBO's groundbreaking series Deadwood, it's no less dynamic in its own understated way.
Granted, of course, by this point we're more than a little familiar with the well-traveled terrain of the All-American genre that's been the stuff of celluloid-spun gold since an actor first fired a bullet directly at the screen in Edwin S. Porter's Great Train Robbery back in 1903.
Nonetheless, perhaps the greatest strength of Levring's straightforward study of a man stripped of everything but his appetite for revenge lies in its sheer commitment to simplicity.
An outsider's tale of an adopted land that might never feel like home, in this IFC feature fresh off the festival circuit, Levring, Jensen and Mikkelsen prove that the most unpredictable man in a fight is the one with nothing left to lose and only his Salvation to gain.
Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.