The Western as a genre has been pretty played out. Whether it’s the cheesy John Wayne westerns, or the gunslinging Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, the genre has very few things left to do with originality anymore. Django Unchained came close, mostly taking the standard Western formula and transplanting it into the setting of late-19th century American slavery. Even that, though was fairly typical. If anything its atypical elements only highlighted just how unoriginal the rest of it was. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being unoriginal, the problem arises when filmmakers try not to be and end up only making it seem more tired. Could there be a western that doesn’t try and re-invent the genre but instead focuses on doing everything as right and as well as possible?
Yes, there can. And it’s called The Salvation.
The Salvation is based around Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish settler who came to America after Denmark lost its war with Germany in the 1870s. The film opens with him waiting for his wife (Oh Land) and son, whom he gets to meet for the first time. Everything seems fine and dandy, except when they get in the wrong stagecoach at the wrong time, and end up travelling with bandits. Jon is thrown out of the carriage and his wife and son are both murdered. After tracking down his family’s killer, he takes revenge and coldly executes the bandits. However, one of the bandits was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a sadistic gang leader who controls the town Jon lives in. Now Delarue is after Jon, forcing him to use all he has to either escape or kill Delarue “ the most dangerous man around.
The Salvation has no interest in being original. Absolutely none. The plot is based around that trusty plot chestnut “ vengeance. It would be easy to call The Salvation old hat, but its intentions are nonetheless completely admirable. Screw trying to re-invent an old genre, just tell a simple story as well as you possibly can with the best actors you can find. And at that, The Salvation is near perfect.
Let’s start with the cast. The performers here are simply impeccable. There is not a bad performance among the lot. Mads Mikkelsen proves himself as a totally credible action leading man, with the stony stare that would send a shiver down even Clint Eastwood’s spine. Mikkelsen is a great actor as well as being intimidating as hell, which gives the emotional scenes actual weight and gives the character actual depth rather than just being grimly determined all the time.
The supporting players are all equally wonderful. From Jonathan Pryce’s weedy town mayor, to Eric Cantona’s quiet dignity and menace, to Jeffery Dean Morgan’s incredible villainous performance that is truly hateable in every sense of the word, to Douglas Henshall’s conflicted town sheriff, sporting an accent that is downright flawless (anyone who has heard his broad native Scottish accent on the ITV show Primeval will know what a transformation it is).
But topping them all is the absolutely stunning Eva Green, who gives the best performance of the film literally with no dialogue. She plays the mute wife of Delarue’s deceased brother, but she is possibly one of the best female characters to grace a western is years. Green has a fantastic silent charisma, lighting up any scene she is in simply from her expression.
Without spoilers, there’s one scene in which she is in extreme danger, was just beaten, and is about to be raped and murdered, and all she does is just stand there and smirk. To top it all off, she’s a total badass, and ends up completely equal to our leading man in every way. It’s nice to see not just a western do this (a genre in which women are nearly always pushed to the sideline), but any film do this, to provide a badass female character who is also an interesting, flawed character. It makes you wish she was in it more, or at least that a sequel would be made featuring her as a protagonist rather than a supporter.
The Salvation is a type of action film that is rarely seen these days “ an action film which does not feel the need to constantly prove itself with set pieces. There are maybe three action sequences in the film of note, and they take place quite a way away from each other. It works really well, setting up a great tension and release cycle as it builds up the next action scene with scenes that show just how close the pot is to boiling over.
The film for the most part looks gorgeous, showcasing the beautiful scenery the setting has to offer, never skipping an opportunity to show just how lovely the sets and costumes are. What is less lovely, and really is the only criticism of the film I have, is the unneeded and quite rubbish CGI. It’s only really noticeable in two scenes, one of which being the credits, but since this is a western CGI really has no place and takes you out of the setting, especially when it’s implemented this poorly. Still, it’s not a big deal, and it can be easily overlooked as a budgetary issue, but it’s still worth noting.