Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)
“The Salvation,” a Danish film set in the American west of the 1870s, is a purer western than most Hollywood westerns.
An Easterner (way east: Denmark) and war veteran (the Second Schleswig War, 1864) winds up in the Old West, where he loses wife and child in brutal fashion and seeks revenge. The town is full of cowards, the mayor/undertaker and sheriff/minister are either weak or collaborators, and the villain who runs things is surrounded by henchmen, bullies and rapists.
Each trope is slightly skewed yet powerfully realized. The film’s foreign pedigree helps with both. Hollywood westerns are all about revenge but the work of prolific Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (“In a Better World”) is about the consequences of revenge; the consequences of standing up to a brutal world. What happens when you match the world’s brutality with your own? Doing so, in Hollywood’s version, is necessary and clean and usually the end of the movie; for Jensen, it’s necessary but never clean and usually the beginning of the movie. Sunsets are a Hollywood contrivance.
There’s a moment 60 minutes into this 90-minute film that’s indicative of why it works. Jon, the Dane (Mads Mikkelsen), has been strung up in the courtyard of the villain, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but rescued by his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), and both are pursued through the countryside by Delarue’s brutal men. Does Jon even know he’s been rescued? He’s out cold for most of it, and his brother has to leave him behind with a rifle. When Jon wakes, he crawls to a pond, drinks, then hears horses approaching. He crawls behind a rock again, grabs his rifle, waits in a panic. The horses go past. He sees that. He also sees they’re dragging something behind them. Peter. Dead.
At this point, the camera closes in on Jon’s face, and on the pain he feels. The music doesn’t well up; it’s quiet, soft. There’s no sudden determination in his eyes at the end, either. Just pain. The whole scene makes you wonder what our westerns would’ve been like if men like Clint Eastwood had been better actors, or had a touch of humanity in their performances.
The first 20 minutes are tough to take, by the way.
A prologue tells us that Jon and his brother Peter (Miakel Persbrandt), following the defeat of Denmark to Prussia/Austria in the Second Schleswig War, left for America, and created a life in the town of Black Creek. Then Jon sends for his wife and son. He first mistakes a woman alighting from the train as his wife but she’s actually behind him; we see her first. On the stagecoach, she tells him in Danish, “You not only look like them, you sound like them.” “You will, too,” he replies consolingly, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And in the stagecoach, two men will prove her right. If John Ford’s stagecoach was a microcosm of civilized society, the version by Jensen and director Kristian Levring is the opposite.
Later in the movie, imprisoned in town, Jon will be chastised by the Sheriff/Minister of Black Creek, Mallick (Douglas Henshall), thus: “If you’d just shown a little compassion for Delarue’s brother instead of killing him, then Mrs. Borowski and Mr. Whisler and Joe No Leg, they’d still be here.” Except he does show compassion. That’s the problem. Even after the two men pull a gun on him and try to rape his wife in front of him (and her son), and Jon gets the upper hand on them, he doesn’t kill them immediately. He shows that little bit of compassion, little bit of civilized behavior. And because of that, it all goes wrong. Lester (Sean Cameron Michael) puts a knife to the boy’s neck, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) grabs the wife again, and Jon is forced to put down his gun. Then he’s kicked out of the stagecoach and into the black night.
He tries to catch the coach, but nobody can outrun horses. Even so, he’s able to follow its tracks to a deserted area, and finds bodies along the way: the stagecoach driver; his son. And there’s the coach next to the woods, with Lester standing guard, rocking back and forth.
Welcome to America.
The revenge is swift. That was unexpected. Lester gets it in the forehead, Paul runs out of the stagecoach, pants between his legs, is shot down. He pleads for what he didn’t truly appreciate before: mercy. “She’s not dead!” he cries. “She’ll be fine!” But Jon keeps pumping his rifle until there are no bullets, and no life, left; then he goes to the stagecoach. We don’t see what he sees; just that he sees it.
This should be the end, right? Twenty-five minutes in. Instead, there are consequences: As alluded, Paul is the brother of Delarue, who runs the town, and who exacts revenge (until the true killer can be found) by taking two lives for his brother’s life: an old woman and a drunk. Not content, he also kills Mr. Whisler, husband and father. The town elders simply watch. The Mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce), is actually in collusion with Delarue, who, it turns out, isn’t bullying the town simply from pleasure; he’s driving people out so Standard Atlantic Oil Company can buy up all the land. There’s a reason the town’s called Black Creek: the stuff bubbles up from the ground. “It’s that sticky oil,” Jon says later in the movie, by way of explanation for all the bad that’s happened. “Delarue believes it’s gonna be worth thousands.”
I love that. Thousands.
It all plays out the way we expect but it’s really well-done. The sheriff/minister not only captures Jon for the murder of the two men, not only chastises him for his lack of mercy, but justifies his own collusion in the name of the Lord. “Your death is going to bring us some time,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding the flock.” In an Eastwood movie, Mallick would’ve been brought low in some way; he would’ve realized the error of his ways; he would’ve embarrassed himself. Here, even to the end, he’s allowed to see himself as the shepherd, the hero. He’s even given the last line of the movie.
In the end, Jon leads an assault on Delarue’s place with the grandson of Mrs. Borowski. The kid tries, but he’s no soldier. But Jon has another partner: Madelaine (Eva Green), the mute widow of Delarue’s brother. Except despite all the fine feelings he has for his brother, Delarue rapes her, and after she tries to flee, he gives her to his men to rape and kill. That’s about when Jon begins his assault and kills everyone but (of course) Delarue. And he’s about to be (of course) killed by Delarue when (of course) Madelaine puts a big hole through Delarue. And in the smoldering aftermath, the Sheriff/Minister arrives to survey the damage and praise the survivors. Except he’s rebuffed, and so offers these parting words to our two heroes: “May the Lord have mercy on both your souls,” he says.
That’s the last line of the movie. Well, last spoken line. As the movie ends, the camera pulls back, and we see all the wooden oil wells on the property, looking like ancient ruins, or newfound gods.
Question: What exactly is the salvation of the title?