Cannes Review: The Salvation

Mads Mikkelsen leads an unapologetically violent western that tells a straightforward revenge story elevated by a mesmerising central performance.

In America, 1871, brothers and former Danish soldiers Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) await the arrival of a train carrying Jon’s wife and son from Denmark. The family have been separated for seven years while Jon and Peter have settled in the wild and lawless lands of late 19th century America. However, no sooner than his wife Marie and child arrive does Jon find trouble at the hands of a pair of men who take a fancy to Marie. Getting in the wrong coach leads to a tense and suddenly violent encounter that leaves Maria and the boy dead and Jon wanted by notorious gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

One of the men who killed Jon’s family turns out to be the brother of the ruthless Delarue and Jon is forced into confrontation with the gang, turning from peaceful settler into desperate, vengeful vigilante. The cowardly community of Black Creek pay Delarue for protection so Jon and his brother Peter must act alone if they are to survive and exact their revenge. Though the sheriff and mayor of Black Creek are either in Delarue’s pockets or too terrified to confront him, Jon may find a surprising ally in a mute woman (Eva Green) who is in Delarue’s inner circle.

Director Kristian Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have crafted a fairly simple story in The Salvation but that does not make it any less enticing. It is shot through with violent retribution as Jon is first attacked, then forced to retaliate and eventually enters a far more dangerous and uninviting world than he ever expected. It wastes little time on character development or sub-plots with the action driving forward with an inevitability that might be predictable but is also fast paced and absorbing. There are moments of sublime cinematography from the opening out-of-focus shots at a train station to shafts of sunlight appearing through bullet holes in the climactic shoot out. The production design is also excellent with Delarue’s men settled in a burnt out old town and the and all the sets giving The Salvation the feel of a classic western.

However, despite the genre trappings, the film is contemporary in its subtext with oil playing an understated (until the final shot) role in the story and the violent action having the same sense of brutal fun that often pervades a Tarantino movie. Though Mads Mikkelsen is exemplary as the mourning hero of the story, he very nearly has the entire film stolen from under him by Mikael Persbrandt as his brother Peter. When Peter is imprisoned, his taunting of his jailor is a wise cracking stand out scene and his subsequent escape and rescue makes him a character that the film could have done with more of. The Salvation should be relentlessly bleak and its treatment of the female characters is particularly grim for much of the film. However, following her wonderfully extreme role in 300: Rise of an Empire, Eva Green again manages to command the screen in her scenes as the mute wife of one of the men Jon kills. Like her 300 character, Green has a tragic back-story but in The Salvation she has no big speeches and only her piercing stare and steely face to show the strength in a woman who could have easily been just another victim.

The Salvation is screening out of competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Although, it does appear to be likely to find its way to decent audience upon release. It is an interesting and in many ways fresh take on the old western with its outsider Danish central characters and mix of American and Danish language. At its heart it is a no-nonsense revenge fantasy but it is has some high-minded subtext for those after something more.

Mikkelsen delivers a typically excellent performance in the lead with some fine support from Mikael Persbrandt, Eva Green, Jonathan Pryce and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. While there are some attempts to make this slightly more arty than many genre outings, The Salvation is essentially just another chance to see one man bring some well-deserved justice to the old West.


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Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter