1870, America: a train rounds the bend and stops at a dusty horse town to deliver a wife (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke) to the husband and father who hasn’t seen either in a decade. They seemed doomed from the start, but maybe that just the ominous score accompanying their arrival.
That husband and father is Jon (Mads Mikkelsen – providing another stellar performance), a Danish soldier who has relocated to the Wild West to start again and build a new life in a new country. Jon is happy to see his wife and meet his son for the first time, but he is a grizzled man who has seen too much. Jon knows what awaits his bride and son out in the untamed country, and even though he is optimistic enough to bring them here, he isn’t shocked when things go south, and they go south fast.
Jon has the unlucky fortune of intersecting paths with Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a ruthless villain that holds a small and dusty frontier town in his iron grip. The country is young and wearing bifocals, but Delarue has real vision. Delarue sees that that the oil this town sits on will soon be a gold mine (how and why he can foretell the future is never explained) and Delarue bides his time by ruling the town with absolute tyranny. Absolute, until Jon comes knocking and mucks the whole thing up, leading to a typical third act shoot-out where one man’s cunning can defeat an entire gang of ruffians.
There is a story buried under all this dirt and grime, and it is a fairly interesting one, but writer/director Kristian Levring doesn’t seem too interested in it. Instead, Levring (and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen) seems to have more fun making the kind of Western that they were raised on as children. That means indulging in cinematic references and homages and carrying those influences on their sleeves as boldly as possible. Shot in a rugged widescreen with close-ups of a decidedly Leone flavor, while the familiar buttes of Monument Valley and frames within frames bring to mind the familiarity of Ford; not to mention the character of Madelaine (Eva Green), a decidedly Hawksian woman with a gun if there was one. It wouldn’t be hard to play Western Bingo while watching The Salvation. Heck, maybe they ought to print up cards to distribute with the movie.
The Western genre isn’t dead, but it has been dying a slow death for over two decades now, with a movie or two popping up here and there, like a drowning man gasping at air. Will The Salvation save it? Probably not, but it does make one wonder, why is the Western dying? At one point, the Western was the most popular genre in American cinema, and truth be told, it is one of the truly great art forms that America gave to the world. Why can’t we make it work anymore? In a Post-9/11 world, one half of the country hungers for good versus evil, white hats and black hats, while the other half demands an accurate portrayal of American history, one that shows the true nature of gender and racial roles in the development of the country. What better genre to simultaneously ennoble and subvert the development of America than a tale of how the West was won/defeated/raped/industrialize/revolutionize? The Salvation doesn’t get there , but it does remind viewers, there is hope yet for the Western. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.