Lately we've been fortunate enough to see some really interesting versions of American movie standards seen through an international lens. The first to come to mind is Ana Lily Amirpour's excellent A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which reimagines the vampire flick (with hints of western, too) with an Iranian cast and crew, and next is Kristian Levring's The Salvation, which seeks to explore the Danish's part in the American west.
While it feels like a typical Western in some ways, the setup is very distinct and focuses on a part of history that I was unfamiliar with: after the Danish lost to Germany in the Second Schleswig War in 1864, many Danish left the country. Jon and his brother, both ex-soldiers, left Denmark for the American West, seeking to earn enough money to bring his wife and newborn son to America to start a new life together. The film begins seven years later, when his family is finally coming to join him, but almost immediately violence tears his newfound happiness asunder. Once he has lost all hope, his only goal is to bring retribution on those who wronged him.
The Salvation is an interesting film for a couple of reasons; besides the fact that it's a Danish western and how authentic to the time and place it feels, there's also the tone of the film. Although it has strong violence in its many brutal shootout scenes, it is primarily a very quiet, meditative movie. It's got a very unique way of building suspense quietly, leaving reveals until long after a typical blockbuster would have given it away. Sometimes Jon knows a key fact minutes before we as the viewer do, which adds to a sense of tension that is maintained throughout. It is slow as it builds to its bloody climax, but isn't so long that it gets boring.
Key to this tone is Mads Mikkelsen's (Hannibal, The Hunt) performance in the lead role. His gradual turn to violence is played with a believability that is impressive. Even more so is his ability to act with so few lines of dialogue–he tells more with small changes in his facial expression than many could have done with several sentences. Jon's loss and anger are felt viscerally, and this is due more to Mikkelsen's acting and Levring's direction than to the script, which must be fairly minimal.
It's also worth mentioning that although shot in South Africa, you'd be hard pressed not to believe it isn't the beautifully untouched old American west. It's shot and lit quite well, with a lot of gritty contrast between the stark heat of the day and the starlit night.
However, what is best about experiencing a new and non-American voice playing with the Western theme is what that outside perspective brings, and in many ways The Salvation is a scathing indictment of America as a violently transformative place. On more than one occasion, the movie references that someone "used to be a good man." This is first used when describing the villain, played a bit monotonously but with subtle menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan: he was changed by the awful things he had to do when fighting off the Native Americans, and is now an unrepentingly violent man. When Jon begins his bloody revenge, he is warned that he is going down the same path, but even before this, his wife is taken aback by how American he looks and sounds to her, and seems unsettled by his assurance that soon she will too.
Speech and communication have major parts in the themes of the film as well; the fact that Jon's wife cannot speak English is the spark that ignites the violence against her, and Eva Green's character Madelaine cannot speak at all since her tongue was cut out by Indians. As Jon slowly loses everything, he has less and less reason to speak at all, and it as if this isolates him from everyone; but it is not enough to keep him from being turned into a powerfully ferocious man by his circumstances.
While many of the themes and ideas are presented with subtlety and cleverness, the one thing that sticks out is the role that oil plays. "That sticky oil" that is bubbling in pits in a few scenes gets referenced several times and plays a role in the villain's plot, but it seems to have more importance in the director's mind than it has on the screen. It seems out of place and doesn't really mesh with the other, more interesting ideas; it is used as a stand-in for greed, but that is not the real motivator for either the protagonist or antagonist and thus seems kind of tacked on.
Despite the under-development of this last theme, the others are interesting enough to make this a worthwhile endeavor. While many Westerns have sought to examine what it means to be an American, it is rare that we get to see this idea considered through a non-American lens, and Levring has done exactly that here in a very compelling way. Although Morgan and Green aren't spectacular, Mikkelsen adds another stellar performance to his growing list. All in all, if you've got a craving for a Western and are looking for something as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, The Salvation will do the trick.
The Salvation opens in Landmark Theaters on 3/20/15.