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IFC Films // Unrated // February 27, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
With all of the action films that are released year after year, many audiences forget the adventure that can be explored in the western genre. When it comes to more modern contributions, filmmakers are introducing new elements to the western formula, which has become tired in film and television over the past few decades. Director Kristian Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen's The Salvation puts a Danish spin on the formula with Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green starring. If that description doesn't instantly capture your attention, then nothing will. However, strong casting alone doesn't necessarily define great filmmaking.
Taking place in 1870s America, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is a peaceful settler with the hopes and dreams of living happily with his wife and son. When a couple of criminals brutally murder his family, Jon unleashes his revenge, which draws the attention of the dangerous gang leader, named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The cowardly townspeople betray Jon in fear, forcing him to hunt down the outlaws by himself, or die trying.
Perhaps one of the most obvious themes to be found in The Salvation is that of immigration. The entire film is built upon a family looking to fulfill their hopes and dreams by finding a better life elsewhere. This commentary is rather effective, especially given the story's time period and the screenplay's desire to provide audiences with a central character that we can deeply sympathize with. However, just when Jon initially appears to be a strong role, Levring and Jensen stop digging. There's so much under the surface, although absolutely none of it is touched upon. Perhaps the bigger crime is introducing Delarue's sister-in-law Madelaine (Eva Green), briefly exploring her devastating past, and then leaving it be. There's an immensely impactful piece of material there, and it's barely explored. The screenplay's inability to dig deep makes both of these roles feel more like characterizations and not actual people, which is an absolute tragedy. There's an abundance of unexplored content here, and I would have gladly stuck around for a longer running time to see it unfold. Without this material, The Salvation feels a bit on the empty side.
Once Jon and Delarue have come face-to-face, the film's acton elements come to the surface. For the most part, this is a lone man mission that can only end in a few different ways. The townspeople who fear Delarue decide to hunt down Jon, as well, leaving the outsider massively outnumbered. If you've watched a few westerns, then you know how The Salvation plays out. Levring and Jensen really don't do anything with the formula, except for adding some extra violence into the mix. It might not be very original, but the action certainly makes for a good time at the cinema. Jon is forced to make every bullet count, and use alternative ways of killing in order to weaken Delarue's men, who are prowling all around the town. The Salvation is truly a revenge film at heart; it just switches who is taking the revenge on who. Nearly every character has a reason to be targeting somebody. It's just all a matter of who gets killed first. The cowardly townspeople simply want to have their land back, and to be free of the death that continues to take place.
The Salvation also includes commentary on what people are willing to do in order to be in a better economical state. The screenplay does a wonderful job of bringing all of this to light from one character to the next, although it doesn't all feel very cohesive. Perhaps this is due to the lack of depth given to each of the characters and what they have truly gone through before coming to this town. The motivations themselves are strong and concise, but the screenplay seems to be rushing things a bit to make it fit within one hour and thirty minutes or so. The filmmakers shouldn't be afraid to make it two hours, if that means creating stronger characters that will actually resonate with the audience. Once the end credits start rolling, it doesn't take very long to realize that The Salvation is a bit unfulfilling. Nevertheless, it still makes for an incredibly entertaining western that will undeniably hold your attention from start to finish.
Unless you've been ignoring much of the film and television industries, then you already know the powerhouses that are Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, who play Jon and Madelaine, respectively. It's always wonderful to see Mikkelsen on the screen, although he feels somewhat restrained in The Salvation. He remains to be incredibly convincing, but he's definitely holding back here. Even so, he's a protagonist that audiences will surely be fascinated by. Eva Green is phenomenal as Madelaine, even despite the fact that she doesn't utter a single word of dialogue. Since the character doesn't speak, she's left to rely on her screen presence, which she has an abundance of. Green constantly steals the screen, as she once again proves to own the silver screen. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is successful as the intimidating Delarue. Much like co-star Eva Green, he has a certain presence that works in his favor. When the three of these characters are on screen together, it makes for an intense presentation.
Writer/director Kristian Levring may stumble a bit with his screenplay, but his visual design is exceptional. He employs some of the cues that one would expect from a western, but tweaks it with an intriguing color palette that continues to evolve throughout the picture's duration. The daytime sequences are composed of browns and yellows, which are to be expected. It's when the film transitions to nighttime, where various shades of gray consume the screen in a way that proves to be so sinister, yet fitting. The production design found within the town is superb, as it successfully places audiences within this western town where bloodshed is inevitable. This is furthermore driven by a sound design that works wonders.
When the action kicks into high gear, The Salvation is a big and badass western that knows when to throw its punches. It doesn't bother to change the formula of the genre, but it knows how to use it fairly well. The renowned Mads Mikkelsen is fitting as the protagonist on a journey of revenge, but the performance seems somewhat restrained. However, Eva Green is the ultimate powerhouse, as she manages to command our attention without muttering a single word of dialogue. While the characters are absolutely fascinating, the screenplay has truly missed the opportunity to dig deep within each of these characters, and truly create something unique and emotionally absorbing. The Salvation remains to be an entertaining western with style. Recommended.