Published Apr 23, 2015Save 2008's underrated and rather dark psychological thriller, Fear Me Not, Kristian Levring's films have taken place in remote environments far from Levring's native country, Denmark. The King is Alive, Levring's foray into the Dogme '95 movement, dumped a group of tourists in the African desert and The Intended transplanted English surveyors into the Malaysian jungle. With The Salvation, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish emigrant, is forging his way through 1870s America.
What ties these films together beyond generalized diaspora and autophobia — and what brings Fear Me Not into the mix — is a specific perspective on, or insight into, human nature. Levring is preoccupied with examining what people do, and what people are capable of, when removed from the constraints of laws and other social conventions.
Though laws exist (sort of) within the lexicon of the 1870s America that Jon is confronted with, it's their failure and exploitation that drives this tale of revenge forward. After years of working on his own, Jon is able to bring his wife and son over from Denmark to join him. Almost immediately, they're targeted and killed by criminals, leaving Jon devastated and enraged. Once he enacts retribution, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a gang leader holding an entire community of people hostage through fear, decides to brutally punish Jon for his illegality, leading to even more vengeance and violence.
This basic format of violence begetting violence is ultimately what sustains The Salvation. There are secondary considerations, such as Madelaine (Eva Green), a mute widow who's ostensibly being sexually abused by Delarue, but these exist mostly to reinforce the central template of wrath and greed as base human motivators.
While this particular view of the Wild West isn't exactly novel, the broad way that Levring suggests that these situations merely stem from opportunity and aren't specific to the American frontier is. And, more importantly, the Danish auteur has fun with the setup, crafting a gorgeously storyboarded, wonderfully stylized and ultimately cathartic ode to the genre. The Salvation is concise, well-paced and very much an entertaining diversion that just happens to have some socio-cultural relevance and purpose.
It's also evident that the actors involved had fun with their roles. Mikkelsen, whose knack for conveying wisdom through very slight facial movement is commendable, approaches his one-man slaughter crusade as a chore. It's evident that he's far more intelligent and capable than his prey, which makes the insouciant way that he approaches picking them off almost comical. Similarly, Green demonstrates her own aptitude for subtlety — despite having a roster of very robust performances under her belt — communicating a perspective and a world through her eyes.
Since the actors and Levring are embracing the dark id impulse of the material, there's freedom to similarly indulge in it. While we obviously can't find clever ways to murder the many terrible people in this world that fear-monger people into submission in real life, we can enjoy a beautifully photographed and propulsive — albeit slight — mode of doing it vicariously. If there had been a bit more substance and complexity to The Salvation, it could have easily achieved excellence, but it's still a great film.