DIR: Kristian Levring • WRI: Anders Thomas Jensen, Kristian Levring • PRO: Sisse Graum Jørgensen • DOP: Jens Schlosser • ED: Pernille Bech Christensen • MUS: Kasper Winding • DES: Jørgen Munk • CAST: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Danish director Kristian Levring, a member of the Dogme 95 Collective, returns to the screen after a six-year hiatus in his Danish Western film, The Salvation, set in 19th century America. Renowned for locating his films around the theme of survival in remote and expansive landscapes, such as The King is Alive (2000) set in a Namibian desert or The Intended (2002) situated in the Malaysian jungle, The Salvation sees Levering not only assign the arid landscape as a central protagonist in the narrative, as is common to the Western, but his cinematic techniques in the film sees a near return to the concepts of the Dogme filmmaking movement which have dominated his craft. Whilst Levring does not strictly adhere to their tenets and his commitment to the traditional conventions of the Western genre permeate throughout, Levring infuses The Salvation with jarring elements of Nordic nihilism and jingoism, mirroring the conflict between Old and New World societies, thereby appropriating and aligning his Western film with his original Dogme roots.
Danish immigrant and former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) awaits the arrival of his wife and young son to Black Creek in the Wild West after a seven-year separation. Although Jon has become ‘Americanised’, his non-English speaking wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) finds the American Old West anything but the land of opportunity as she perceives an uncivilized, felonious frontier full of corrupt degenerates, which hold no social, legal or moral boundaries. As the self-effacing family departs to their new home aboard a stagecoach, Marie is violated and murdered by repulsive savages, as is son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) in the presence of a helpless Jon, motivating a bloodthirsty revenge plot on the perpetrator of the heinous crime. Unbeknownst to Jon, his family’s murderer is the brother of the notoriously feared, despotic town gang leader, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who determines to brutally avenge his brother’s killer. Such is the terror inflicted on the repressed townsfolk of Black Creek by land baron Delarue, the dehumanized community colludes with Delarue, impelling Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrand) to seek vengeance themselves.
In keeping with the traditional Western, The Salvation appears to adhere to the conventions, tropes and themes of the genre. Set in 1870s in the American Old Wild West, the theme of revenge between a morally wronged hero and a feared, iniquitous outlaw drives the narrative, where redundant enforcers of the law are in name only, and social order is restored through a self-entitled disregard and elimination of human life. Following the conventional narrative structure, a reputable hero rolls into an uncivilized town and is atrociously wronged by an ill-bred and barbaric group of bandits, thereby reaping revenge and restoring social order through a code of honour, customarily a bloody feud. Levring also commits to another common trope in the liberation of the subjugated damsel in distress, usually at the hands of the town’s head honcho.
As with most Westerns, the landscape plays a highly significant role in the The Salvation’s narrative. The vast and desolate space allows for social order and law enforcement to be abandoned, allowing corruption, violence and deadly executions to cultivate. The stark and unforgiving mountainous landscape holds no social or legal boundaries and becomes a space where brutality flourishes and the oppressed are devoured. Where Levring departs from the conventional Western is his unembellished production set and uncontrived action from his players. We rarely see the ubiquitous Western saloon, where carousing and womanizing is central to the action. There are no churches or schools and the general store is barely frequented. Only the interior of the jailhouse features prominently and it is a space where corruption and savagery permeates throughout. Rather, Levring creates a minimal production set that allows the action to be driven by its revenge narrative alone, abandoning the iconography that defines the Western.
Native Americans do not feature in the film but are commonly referred to and, evidently, Levring is drawing comparisons between the treatment of new immigrants, on which the United States was founded upon, and the destruction of the Native Americans. Degradation, annihilation and an utter disregard for human life are imposed on the citizens of Black Creek who hold no place for Others and masculinity is measured by excessive violence, abuse and the infliction of suffering, creating a desperate, unforgiving and hopeless tone throughout the narrative. The pace of the film is slow, tense and anxious, built upon a motivation for revenge between two antithetical men, who are united through a shared destructive ideology, cementing the absurdity of human ideals. The cinematography is stylish and luminous, complementing the sparse production set, yet creating a contrasting light and shade between tense violent revenge and moments of sensitive poignancy in relation to human oppression.
In a nod to his Dogma roots, Levring allows the actors to drive the narrative and Mads Mikkelsen excels as the stoic and troubled widower, Jon, whose point of view steers the narrative. As with many Western heroes, he does not indulge in any outpouring of emotion but rather maintains a dignified yet determined commitment to his cause, whether he is being violently tormented or merely indulging in quiet contemplation and grief. In The Salvation, as Jon’s wife is already slain and in keeping with his highly principled values, Jon is enable to further revenge on Delarue, by rescuing his mute mistress Madelaine (Eva Green), who had her tongue cut out by Native Americans, although it was Madelaine’s husband who killed Jon’s family.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is spine-chilling as the demonic archetypal Western villain and both Jonathan Pryce as the bumbling, obsequious mayor and undertaker, Keane and Douglas Henshall as the noisome, arbitrary sheriff are revelatory in their roles. But it is dignified performance by Eva Green as the mute Madelaine, whose physicality in her characterization is extraordinarily more communicative than any dialogue could express, that must take the acting honours.
The Salvation is a contemporary western that adheres to the American conventions of the genre with flashes of unconventional techniques from one of the Dogme 95 members. If one expects to see The Salvation littered solely with hackneyed Western conventions, one will be pleasantly surprised by some of the unexpected jarring flashes of Dogme regulations in the film that could possibly herald a new cinematic convention for the contemporary Western.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Salvation is released 17th April 2015