In Dogme director Kristian Levring’s harrowing 2000 film The King Is Alive, a clutch of mismatched folk variously afflicted by modern-day angst are stranded in the great void of an African desert. For distraction, they decide to perform King Lear, Shakespeare’s wrenching tale of despair and madness. For these lost souls, it’s the narrative containment of the play’s spiritually corrosive content that looks like something they might hold on to.
The Salvation, Levring’s strangely numinous Danish take on the American western, displays a similar faith in the power of fiction, to show and contain chaos and horror, ceremonially, artfully. That power in some fashion saves us—like the ritual of consuming a god’s blood and body. The ambiguous salvation promised in the movie’s title may well refer to the good work art can do for us.
This peculiar western runs on the kind of stylized genre storytelling that fulfills familiar forms and conventions, satisfying our appetite for archetypes and inevitability. It’s the juice that fuels mythic sagas such as The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Searchers. If you’re a modernist who expects any contemporary iteration of the American western to unravel every socio-economic-cultural thread, if you demand psychological verisimilitude, narrative sophistication, and ironic hindsight, The Salvation is not for you. Those with less straitened tastes will surely fall under the spell of this Scandinavian-flavored tale of hate, murder and revenge. As familiar as an old, oft-recited poem, this western teems with floating memories—images, gestures, and landscapes from previous visions of the American West.
A train slowly pulls into a dusty station where two weathered men—brothers, onetime soldiers in a distant European war, new Americans—are waiting for a long-absent wife and son to arrive in the New World. Despite the tactile specificity of the scene, any western-lover may imagine he glimpses a man known only as Harmonica—Leone’s avenging angel—just beyond those railroad tracks, as well as the auspicious arrival of a glowing earth mother (Claudia Cardinale), looking to put down second-chance roots in Monument Valley. The Salvation is well and truly haunted, not by homages in quotation marks, but by phantoms from cherished classics that all begin “Once upon a time in the West….”
Jon’s the Danish homesteader who hasn’t seen his beloved wife and 10-year-old boy for seven years; he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, a versatile actor as at home on American TV playing urbane cannibal Hannibal Lector as he is portraying a mute, one-eyed savage in Nicolas Refn Winding’s bizarre and bloody Valhalla Rising (2009). Mikkelsen’s remarkable visage—carved cheekbones, impossibly sensual mouth—is as iconic and beautiful as Charles Bronson’s or Clint Eastwood’s. Like The Man with No Name, his intense stillness is a magnet for attention, action, the camera’s eye.
The Salvation’s narrative has barely taken hold before Jon’s reunited family is brutally sundered by a brace of thugs who shoulder their way onto their stagecoach, hot with lust and violence. Thrown from the stage, Mikkelsen pursues the receding phantom shape, running madly down a narrow track aimed straight for the horizon. On either side, cold moonlight irradiates fields of gunmetal-gray grass. It is a stunning nightmare ‘scape, rife with horror-movie futility.
Levring does not show any part of the murder of Jon’s child, or the rape-murder of his briefly embraced wife. He takes this narrative approach throughout the film, allowing us to imagine but rarely witness crucial horrors. Thus The Salvation advances rapidly and ruthlessly, from emblematic outrage to outrage, like a series of body-blows. These events are stations along the main narrative road, aimed always at the hardening of hero (and Eva Green’s ferocious heroine) into “stoic killer” (D.H. Lawrence’s description of the quintessential American hero), the human equivalent of stone, moved only by vengeance.
Those narrative way-stations—peak moments—are often punctuated by deep, resonant classical guitar riffs. The effect is ceremonial, comparable to the bells that remind the religious of liturgical hours, or the strumming of a minstrel’s harp to emphasize the cadences of a chanted line of Old English poetry. Those riffs lift action out of the realm of the mundane into something like the mythic.
In this particular template, community is far from John Ford’s locus of order, civilization. Black Creek is hell not haven (recalling, of course, the town that crucifies Eastwood in High Plains Drifter.) When Levring’s camera moves into and out of framing doorways in the town of Black Creek, it discovers hypocrites and monsters inside, while broken and reviled outcasts like Mikkelsen’s homesteader and Eva Green’s “Princess” become agents of terrible righteousness.
Levring’s bereaved husband is as driven to retribution as Ethan Edwards, but in The Salvation there’s no home or community in which even Ethan can take momentary shelter. The oases of yellow-gold window- and door-light in Black Creek—and its “negative,” the mostly burned-out town where bad man Frank Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hangs his hat—are lies, not sanctuaries from the encroaching dark. (Shades of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, all about love and warmth and shelter in molten-gold interiors vs. getting left out in the cold, economically and spiritually speaking.)
Levring has richly colored (with the aid of some post-production tinkering) his elemental world in burnished gold, yellow ochre and brown, with night scenes splashed by long shadows and stormlight. Faces are often limned in bone-white, suggesting the skull beneath the skin; or are as tan and weathered as western rockscapes. Delarue sports a long coat the color of old blood that looks to have odd depth, a life of its own. The hue isn’t symbolic; it’s his skin.
The Salvation was shot in South Africa; the Monument Valley skyline was imported via CGI. But the dim, somehow not quite stable mesas and steles that backdrop the action suggest some giant theater-in-the-round, patronized by old gods with a taste for human tragedy.
Jon takes his revenge on the wife-murdering thugs, but one, just out of jail, is the brother of Delarue (gutter-kin to Rio Bravo’s clean-cut villain Nathan Burdette), the bad man who holds the town of Black Creek in thrall, exacting tribute and randomly executing sacrificial “lambs” because the completely craven townsfolk can’t deliver up his brother’s killer. Lambs are what Mallick (Douglas Henshall), the town’s morally bankrupt sheriff-cum-preacher, calls them, necessary casualties in the “good” shepherd’s effort to save the flock. Complicit in communal corruption and hypocrisy is the town’s venal mayor and undertaker (Jonathan Pryce) who’s buying up land for Delarue and his corporate overlords. (Original sin, in the form of black gold, is seeping into the paradise of the West. There will of course be blood.)
Naturally, when Jon and his brother (Mikael Persbrandt) pass through town on their way west, everyone’s delighted to give the widower up to be tortured and murdered by Delarue. Driven by the story’s inexorable momentum, events fall like dominos, each a step calculated to further the fated journey of a grim reaper and his killer-bride.
That killer-bride is gorgeous Eva Green, who, even speechless, burns up the screen, telegraphing an awful history through features as fierce as Mikkelsen’s. (Mute or magnificently articulate, Green’s capacity to convey larger-than-life passion is breathtaking, from her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) to Showtime’s current series Penny Dreadful, in which even the devil desires her.) Madelaine’s a woman whose innumerable violations are beyond imagining. First, white chattel in an Indian tribe, her tongue cut out, her temple tattooed with a savage’s version of a bar code, her mouth marred by a slant-wise scar, the mark of a Magdalene. Then, yoked to a subhuman white man who dubs her “Princess” yet cruelly abuses her, as does his brute-brother, who believes her muteness is “a gift to me.”
When, late in the movie, Levring shoots Mikkelsen and Green facing one another in closeup, each dominating his/her own separate frame, the connection is like lightning. Those remarkable faces have become inhuman; they are like magnificent daemons whose only possible home are the mesas of Monument Valley. They are blood kin to Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, burning out to become part of the lurid Western landscape at the end of Duel in the Sun.
The penultimate shots of The Salvation evoke the ending of Stagecoach, but it’s hard to imagine any salvation for Levring’s Furies as they ride off not to regain Paradise but to escape Hell. Especially when the camera pulls back and back to frame their getaway through a forest of oil rigs, pumping Eden dry.
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Murphy