Mads to the Bone, by Aaron Pinkston
Mads Mikkelsen as an everyman-turned-badass out for revenge in the Old West? Eva Green as a mute moll gunslinger, permanently scarred and under the control of a madman? Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a rugged, ruthless outlaw willing to kill every man, woman and child standing in his way? The Salvation has every ingredient to be a great modern revenge Western. But Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring’s homage to the great American classics is stuck in its genre that has worn out this story with more style, philosophy and thrills. This leaves The Salvation feeling like a middle of the road, paint-by-numbers genre exercise that should have been so much more.
The film sets its entire plot in the first scene. Jon (Mikkelsen) reunites with his wife and child after seven years apart, only for them to be murdered by a pair of ruffians while travelling by stagecoach. After he hunts down his family’s killers, he creates a chain of revenge that ultimately leads to a showdown and a lot more death. There isn’t much more to this sleek, straight-forward plot as it leans heavily on Western archetypes. Each character can be wrapped up in a single motivation, just as the film can be completely described in a few short sentences.
I’m not going to blame any film for being 90 minutes, but The Salvation could really use the extra time to more deeply explore its characters and themes. Instead, everything is on the surface, incredibly generic, which begs for it to be compared to its more memorable predecessors. I have no doubt that the film is left intentionally insular and sparse, like its deserted environment – this can definitely work when the small set builds tension, but The Salvation simply relies on shorthand when building its world. Even if Levring doesn’t care to expand, why not allow these interesting actors to have a little more to do?
The most intriguing element comes directly from High Noon (one of the film’s many influences), as Jon is betrayed by his townspeople who don’t want to cross the dangerous Delarue, town gangster. This plot device is half-baked at best (much like the rest of the film), limited by the small number characters and relationships. We get a good sense of Delarue, being a typical Western bad-guy (also being Jeffrey Dean Morgan, which is basically perfect); Jon’s social status and the overall workings of the society are pretty unclear. Still, we get a great supporting character from Jonathan Pryce as the snivelling mayor who turns against Jon in the most delightfully cowardly way.
The Salvation isn’t a bad film, but a disappointing one. It provides most everything a Western requires at a level of competency – it is well shot in beautiful environments, with familiar characters and themes. Mikkelsen and Green are both fantastic, as one would assume – neither is put in a role that challenges them to play against their natural strengths. Their presence alone is nearly enough to warrant a hearty endorsement, but there is an unfortunate lack in every other aspect of the film. Fans of neo-Westerns will be mildly entertained, but never engaged.