As a Western shot by a Danish crew in South Africa, The Salvation already has a hodgepodge air about it. The movie never quite overcomes that sense of being assembled from different directions, but—with the help of two charismatic stars—it does conjure up its share of evocative genre moments. The hook is set early, as a terrible act of frontier violence and instant retribution blows apart the world of Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen). Now Jon and his brother Peter (cool customer Mikael Peresbrandt, a Hobbit veteran) are targeted for revenge by a very bad hombre (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose henchmen have the usual traits of bad hygiene and lousy marksmanship. There’s also a woman, played by the thankfully ubiquitous Eva Green, who does not speak. A wordless role is no problem for this French actress, who looks as though she might set fire to the entire worthless town with a glance.
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.