Writer-director Kristian Levring says there are 62 different references to classic Westerns in his own oater “The Salvation.” Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay his film is that I never looked for them.
I was too busy enjoying the film, out on Blu-ray this month, which succeeds entirely on its own merits as a traditionally structured Western. Levring and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen understand what makes the genre work so well — the characterizations, the classicism of the shots, the building and violent releasing of tension.
Which is interesting, since both Levring and Jensen are Danish, as is their star, Mads Mikkelsen of “Hannibal,” and the film was shot in South Africa. That’s a little reminiscent of “Slow West,” which was made in New Zealand by a Scottish director. But while “Slow West” used its outsider status to question and challenge the conventions of a very American cinematic art form, “The Salvation” comes at it from the perspective of an unabashed fan.
With one big difference. The hero of “The Salvation” is not a red-blooded American, but a Danish immigrant relatively new to the frontier. Jon (Mikkelsen) is an immigrant who has been working in America for a few years with his brother (Mikael Persbrandt), getting things ready to bring Jon’s wife and young son over from Denmark.
The day finally arrives, but when the family ride to their new home, they have to share a stagecoach with two recently-paroled outlaws. In a tense, even unpleasant sequence, a confrontation between the gunslingers and the family escalates in the confined space of the stagecoach. When it’s over, everyone is dead except Jon.
One of the dead gunfighters happens to be the younger brother of a really bad customer, Henry Delarue (Jeffery Dean Morgan), who basically has the local townsfolk under his thumb. When the townsfolk are cowed into standing aside while Henry and his men hunt down Joe and his brother, Joe is forced to stand alone. (“High Noon.” That reference I got.)
Levring and Jensen keep the contours of the story very clean and straight, with “The Salvation” clocking in at a taut 90 minutes. But within that frame the filmmakers allow room for all kinds of interesting characters and shadings, such as Jonathan Pryce as the local undertaker/mayor (and business is good in both professions), or Eva Green in an entirely mute role as the dead gunslinger’s traumatized widow. Even Morgan finds complexities in the standard villain role, playing a bad guy who very much understands he’s a cog in a much larger machine.
The tension builds to an absolutely superb climactic gunfight, with the storytelling’s sharp angles reflected in the geometrical precision of the staging of the action. “The Salvation” is a movie made by Western fans for Western fans, even if they live half a world away.
The Blu-ray edition of “The Salvation” features some short films capturing how the production recreated the Old West in the middle of South Africa, and also some very extensive on-set interviews with all the cast and filmmakers.