“Never start a fight you can’t win”
There are very few twists one can subject a western film to these days. Doing so would require the contortion of an established template, spurred on by the secret hope that it would lead to the discovery of something new. While this is a far-fetched dream, Kristian Levring certainly comes close to capturing it in his Danish western film The Salvation (2014).
Set in 1871 America, the Danish-British-South African co-production follows Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish settler awaiting the arrival of his wife and son. When their appearance coincides with that of two former soldiers, Jon finds his life shattered. His cold-blooded revenge on his family’s oppressors ignites the fury of the local tyrant Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose connection to one of the murdered men ran deep. In his bid to punish the culprit, he terrorises the local town, turning its inhabitants against Jon and his brother. Meanwhile, the silent Madelaine (Eva Green) struggles to find her own escape from beneath the proprietary hands of the ruthless Delarue.
From the very first shot, The Salvation astounds with its visuals. The swirls of hot, dry air can be felt on one’s cheeks, and the undulating beige of the prairie sneaks beneath coarse fingernails and settles between fanning lashes. The physicality of Jens Schlosser’s cinematography is further uplifted by the addition of an orchestra of ticking cicadas, the crackling sun, a melancholic guitar and the wanton cries of the vultures biding their time overhead.
The film’s brilliance rests in the shift between night and day, however. The nightscape turns crimson blood silver, and releases shadows that peel themselves off the canvas of the bubbling night to unleash their dormant inhumanity. These forms, forever locked in a half-human, half-cartoonosh struggle for shape and definiton, blend into the darkness just like the characters in the neo-noir film Sin City (2005). This seems fitting, as certain scenes in The Salvation possess film noir qualities. These, combined with the creaking foundations of a western classic, are quite mesmerising.
The shifting angles toy with streaks of naked moonlight, unearthing the rawness of emotion that Mads Mikkelsen grips and wields with charisma. The camera itself gurgles with suppressed life, lurking in the desolate ruins of wooden saloons. Its affinity for seclusion bleeds into the overall atmosphere of great loss and destitution in the film. Moments of unbearable tension snap, revealing the severed tendons of a once-hopeful existence. This, combined with the thriller-esque music, inspires a sense of dread in the audience – especially when the need for human sacrifices is treated with all the rationality of an unhinged mind.
The Salvation exists in a world of simpler fears and more primitive instincts, but such is the reality of all westerns. By not allowing the plot to indulge in any complexities, and thus straying far from the unpredicatbility of the characters’ actions, the film fails to rouse much emotion. However, its limited scope boasts a deeper level of intricacy – one that was first presented in 1950’s westerns, such as William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958), and was then continued in such works as Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961).
These productions relieved themselves of the traditional models of good and bad forces, and instead treated the characters on-screen as convoluted and errable human beings. Even Delarue’s barbaric ways are justified with talk of the dehumanising metamorphosis all soldiers in the army eventually undergo.
Such emphasis on human psychology adds nourishing sustenance to the stripped-back impulses governing our protagonists. That is why, perhaps, Eva Green is a commanding presence as the quaking embodiment of silent fury – despite not uttering a single word in the film.
Many will argue that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s malicious character pulls the audience in, but it can also be said that it is the coercive artistry of The Salvation‘s production – its passionate devotion to aesthetics – that makes it a fascinating ode to the genre.
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