1871. Ex-pat Danish soldier Jon (Mikkelsen) is welcoming his wife and son to America. Taking the stagecoach to his farm, the family are joined by a drunken outlaw and his taciturn sidekick, and when the former makes a pass at Jon’s wife, all hell breaks loose.
Though surface comparisons might be drawn with Django Unchained, The Salvation has more in common with the European films that inspired Tarantino. Where traditional US westerns told, and retold, the stories of the pioneers – the Daniel Boones, the Davy Crocketts – the Europeans focused on the immigrant experience, which is what we have here. Drawing on John Huston’s cynical 1948 neo-western The Treasure Of the Sierra Madre, this shows us a west of shifting allegiances and towns under attack, with, in a nice nod to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, the railroad company being the biggest gangsters of them all.
A traditional spaghetti Western set in late-19th-century America may seem an unexpected choice for Danish director Kristian Levring but it seems paradoxically fitting on a strange CV that only consists of five films. His breakout Dogme film, The King Is Alive (2000), was filmed in Namibia, and he followed it quickly with 2002’s The Intended, an intimate period drama shot in the jungles of Malaysia. Since then, his only output has been the little-seen thriller Fear Me Not, an ingenious take on Nicholas Ray’s cult favourite Bigger Than Life that, while eminently entertaining, always seemed a little under-ambitious by contrast.
Like his middle-era films The Salvation was shot in the wilderness (the outskirts of Johannesburg) but like Fear Me Not (also scripted by Anders Thomas Jensen), it shows a deft awareness of genre. Which is good because this is a very tough genre to get right; as with film noir, it’s all too easy to let the style steal the show.
Levring is savvy enough to know that pastiche and homage won’t be enough, and with its eclectic cast, he sets up a gripping yet painterly tale of wrongs and retribution, playing to Mikkelsen’s steely strengths as a resourceful hero and charismatic leading man. And in the wooden shanty town of Black Creek – a kind of Ikea tribute of Spain’s Almería, where so many vintage spaghetti westerns were made – The Salvation steps up to the challenge of its set-up, paying off with a violent showdown that’s as thrilling and satisfying as it is gruesomely inventive. It’s only a shame Eva Green’s initially intriguing but ultimately sketchily drawn love interest isn’t allowed to join in more. Then again, we have to blame the template for that.
The dirty compañeros of the old Spaghetti West ride again in this stirring tale of hate, murder and revenge.