With a first-rate cast, director and cinematographer, it’s a wonder how “The Salvation” ended up looking like such a second-rate production.
A lukewarm Western/revenge flick somewhat in the vein of “Unforgiven” but without the stirring emotional element, director Kristian Levring clearly understands how to set the mood of a good old-fashioned shoot-’em-up, but stumbles with the overly simplistic story line that he fashioned with co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (2012’s “Love is All You Need”). Curiously abrupt editing contradicts the film’s ostensible aim to be a slow-burner, despite a rather swift running time (92 minutes) for the genre.
Fortunately, it’s Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt”) in the lead role as a Danish settler in post-civil war America who immediately carries out revenge against the men who’ve murdered his wife and young son, only to be a targeted by the outlaws led by the brother of one of the culprits (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The film spends more time illustrating what a monster Morgan’s character is than it needs to — he murders several folks in the small town that he holds under his thumb, and rapes his brother’s widow (Mikkelsen’s “Casino Royale” co-star Eva Green) — while Mikkelsen spends a good third of the film bound to a stake in the center of town.
As mandated by the Western Handbook, we’re not expected to sympathize with many of the ancillary players: Jonathan Pryce plays a dirtbag mayor, and the sheriff (Douglas Henshall), who has basically been neutered of his legal authority by the gang, does nothing but stand by and watch as things get out of control. I regret to report that the retribution is a bit less than satisfying, and the requisite final shoot-out is fairly boilerplate.
But it’s hard not to be entranced by Mikkelsen’s stoic demeanor, even if for the purposes of this film, he might be too stone-faced for his own good; he’s ideal as the enigmatic ex-soldier Jon, if only the writers had risen to his talent (check out Refn’s “Valhalla Rising”). Morgan, too, is a perfect fit for the monstrous Delarue, though the script eventually calls for him to be so despicable that it exceeds what the typically amicable star can pull off without looking a bit like he’s just playing dress-up.
Surprisingly, what kind of ties the whole thing together is Green, whose Madelaine at first looks like an amalgam of the recent villainesses she’s played (see: “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Dark Shadows”), but makes a sharp turn into decidedly uncharted territory. “The Salvation” might be worth a trip to the big screen for genre fanatics, if for nothing other than DP Jens Schlosser’s spectacularly rendered scenery. Otherwise, we’re looking at a great ensemble in a Hallmark-caliber Western.