[Coming soon to DVD. Enjoy this guest review by Ian Maddison. — Ed.]
There is a long history of European storytellers mythologising the American West. German author Karl May wrote Western adventure stories in the 19th century. May’s stories of Old Shatterhand and his ongoing friendship with Apache chief Winnetou were filled with hope and optimism for humanity’s future. By the 1960s, when Italian filmmakers turned their interest to the Old West, attitudes had changed. The films of Leone, Corbucci and countless others were violent and nihilistic affairs that cast a critical eye on the lawless land. Now, with Danish director Kristian Levring’s The Salvation, we have another European perspective of American history that is a bleak and miserable experience.
What initially sets The Salvation apart from other Westerns is its depiction of 19th century America as a land of European immigrants, divided by language and history, all mingled together trying to make it work. The film’s main focus is on Danish farmer Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), hardened by war at home and trying to make a new, peaceful life in the colonies. Things are going fairly well, so Jon finally has his wife and son travel from Denmark to live with him, only to have them both almost immediately murdered by a pair of thugs. Jon gets his bloody revenge but soon finds that one of the men he killed was the brother of ruthless gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who vows for double-revenge.
What could have been a rather simple tale told with gusto, something akin to Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, ends up dragging its feet in the telling. For a film that runs only ninety-two minutes, there are an awful lot of elaborate plot contrivances. At every turn, character is sacrificed for plot until the audience is completely detached from anybody’s reasons for doing anything. A revenge story is fine in and of itself sometimes, The Salvation uses the death of loved ones and the subsequent revenge as a way to introduce us to the absolute, inescapable no-fun-zone that we let ourselves in for. It’s the miserable foundation of a house built from misery.
A bizarre element thrown into the mix is Madelaine (Eva Green), Delarue’s mute sister-in-law and accountant who seems to exist solely because the writers felt they needed a female character, but didn’t want to write any dialogue for her. Through a series of events very tenuously connected to the central plot, Madelaine attempts to escape Delarue’s evil influence and is thwarted by his right-hand man Corsican (Eric “Ooh-Aah” Cantona), another character who might as well not be there. It’s another ingredient in this weird soup of ideas that never comes together because the film never bothers to explore anything for long enough to make a point before moving on to the next barely related plot twist about oil company monopolies.
The cast all do as well as they can with the thin material they’re given. Mikkelsen and Green are both locked in a competition to see who can be the most stoney-faced and mysterious. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Mikael Persbrandt both get the opportunity to chew a little scenery which brings some life to their grim scenes, and Jonathan Pryce is probably the only person involved in the film having any fun (audience included), playing a crooked mayor-cum-undertaker.
At its heart, I think The Salvation wants to be a criticism of how large companies drive out small businesses and grind down the hard working individual, but you can do that in an enjoyable way surely. When the climactic third act shootout comes, it reads more like the pathetic outburst of a desperate man on the verge of clinical institutionalisation rather than being in any way cathartic. This narrative of “accented white people raping and murdering each other until there’s nobody left to rape or murder and nobody ever smiles” doesn’t even get to end on a high note. At the end of the film, double-duty sheriff/priest Mallick (Douglas Henshall) thanks Jon for “saving us from our misery,” only to imply that he is about to inflict more misery on everyone else because it’s all a metaphor for how shit life always is no matter what.
So we come back to the matter of Europeans going west and the gradual loss of optimism that has crept in over the years. I can’t help but wonder what Karl May would have made of The Salvation, a film that would undoubtedly cast a judgemental eye over the inherent falseness of Shatterhand and Winnetou’s friendship. Is this the logical conclusion to the European fascination with the Old West? Compare this to Quentin Tarantino’s self-critical Django Unchained and its romanticisation of a German immigrant. Maybe the Western has lost its cultural relevance? Even so, it would be nice to send it off with a little more fanfare than this odyssey of anguish.
Ian Maddison is a big fan of movies. Follow him on Twitter if you don’t believe us.Liked This? Share It!