The Salvation - LFF Thrill Gala
There are fewer triggers in life that get me into a cinema quicker, other than a western and Mads Mikkelsen. Starting with Westerns, well that is easy, it is my Granma's fault. She loved a western, good, bad or indifferent, she was nut when it came to them. And the Rockford Files, for that matter. Going round to my grandparents would mean a good western, usually staring The Duke or Clint. I don't think she realised what she'd let herself in for when we started watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly one winter evening when I was around 8 or 9. But I grew up on the classics, Ford's The Searchers, Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder (in which I swear, if you squint at just the right moment, Dean Martin has a martini in hand) and My Darling Clementine. The Mads Mikkelsen thing has nothing to do with my Grandma. One lazy afternoon with nothing better to do I made the mistake of actually spending money to go see Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. I suppose I was hoping for a Bernard Cornwell-esqe take on the legend, but instead just got a plain terrible one. One highlight though, was the Danish guy with the amazing face playing Tristan. A couple years later he popped up as the villain in Casino Royale. Given the plaudits Casino Royale has got, it may surprise you to know I have issues with it. Le Chiffre is under used and not nearly as strong a villain as Flemming wrote in the book. While I love Eva Green, they spent too much time building her up for her ultimate betrayal and then Daniel Craig, who obviously hadn't read the venom in the book, fluffed the "The Bitch is Dead" line at the end. That is the greatest final line in literature, comparable to "I Am Legend" in Matheson's small tome of perfection by the same name. Anyway, Mikkelsen was a solid Bond villain, but when I watched Susanne Bier's After The Wedding, a serious man-crush developed. This guy could act. Following Wedding up with even better turns in A Royal Affair and The Hunt, I was sold as Mads being one of the greatest actors of this generation. I even almost broke up with someone over her disapproval of Hannibal. She won. I should have stuck to the TV show as it turns out...
So when I was going through the London Film Festival program and saw that the Thrill Gala was a Danish western staring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, written and directed by Kristian Levring, it went to the top of my festival viewing list. Tickets were bought and "Surrey Rob" enlisted to accompany me, he was sold on the thought of seeing Eric Cantona in a western. Who wouldn't? The issues begin beforehand. On the Sunday night before, I saw The Keeping Room at LFF. More of a Southern than a Western, it ticked every box I have for a film and got extra points for its Western style. The Salvation had a lot to live up to. But given that it was a Mads Western, I walked in excited and ready to go, every film needs to be given a chance to stand or fall on its own. Unfortunetly, The Salvation stumbles more than it stands.
The premise is a Western staple. Man moves West to carve himself a life, before sending for his family to join him on the frontier. The Danish twist is that the Man is Mads Mikkelsen's soldier who, alone with his brother, following Denmark's defeat in the Second Schleswig War, head to America. Seven years later, homestead established, Mad's Jon sends for wife Marie (played well in fish out of water style by Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son Kresten. What follows is best described as the Stage ride from Hell. Jon is kicked from the stage by the recently released prisoner fellow traveler who proceeds to do unspeakable things to Marie and kills Kresten. Jon, running behind, catches up too late, kills the two men who killed his son and raped his wife, before taking the remains of his family home, where his brother Peter (an excellent Mikael Persbrandt, The Hobbit's Beorn, if Tolkien movies are your thing) awaits. Plot issue number 1, before killing the lead outlaw scum from the stage, he shouts "She's still alive!" The next scene has Marie slung over a horse. Granted, what the poor woman has been through, death would have been a release, but there is no transition and it raises an early question, who killed the wife? The action then moves to the town of Black Creek (great town name for a western) where local Robber Baron Delarue, played with some gusto by Jeffery Dean Morgan, comes riding into town out for revenge over the death of his brother, our now departed outlaw scum from the stage. The townsfolk of Black Creek are all good plays on Western staples, the Undertaker is the Mayor, the local Vicar doubles up as the Marshall etc. The Undertaker/Mayor is played by Jonathan Pryce, who doesn't use up an ounce of his Brazil goodwill on this role, for a change. Pryce jumps in with relish and while you know rather soon where his loyalties lay, it is enjoyable to see him have this much fun. Douglas Henshall, having escaped Shetland, but not all the traces of the accent, has a fun looking role on paper, mixing the local priest with the Marshall is a great idea on paper, but its just underused. It just ends up as a guy with a star and a dirty dog collar. Anyways, Delarue demands the man who killed his brother in two hours or he will kill two townsfolk. The mayor/undertaker and vicar/marshall chose the old lady who runs the shop and a war vet with no legs as the sacrifice, who Delarue promptly kills, shooting them each twice, before moving onto another innocent as those two weren't worth his brother. Personal issue number two. Levring talked about the research done on the film, but Delarue fires six shots. With no safety on a 19th century revolver, you only chambered five rounds in case in riding and walking you caught the hammer and put a bullet in your leg. Granted, Delarue has been standing around for two hours and could have loaded up, but his decision to shoot the third man would have carried more weight with a hesitation, the explanation as to why those two were not enough while reloading, then killing the third man.
I sound like I'm ragging on The Salation here, but I don't mean to be. Its just that while the premise and setup are good, the execution, in this post-Unforgiven/Open Range Western Film World, means "a by the numbers" Western needs something more to stand out. The Salvation has Mads Mikkelsen, which helps. Mads' performance, the transformation from family man to one of grim determination for revenge, is wholly watchable. Eva Green, as the former Indian prisoner who has had her tongue cut out, does good work in the mute's role. But a scene to show her as capable as the men is wasted later by her character returning to helpless woman victim type. Which is a pity, because in the notable few scenes where she is allowed to act, she is excellent. The film from the town killings on becomes formulaic. There are no real surprises, which is a pity because the setting and sets are brilliant. The film seems to use the Cinemascope colour pallet, vibrant greens, browns, reds and blues make the film pop off the screen. The blues and greens of Mads and Eva's eyes in closeup are incredible. I guess the reason I'm a tad down on The Salvation is that all the pieces are there, the setup is good, Mads and Eva are excellent, the supporting cast all do their bits well, with Persbrandt the standout in the small Peter role. The problem I have is there is nothing to surprise you along the way. I've mentioned the great modern Westerns, Unforgiven and Open Range that have twists and turns to the western standard. Coupled to that, you also have Hell On Wheels which as a series, has to surprise regularly. The Salvation feels like a contract effort from the studio system, a solid B-Feature. It's what I would call a good beer and pizza movie. Plus, there could have been more Eric Cantona.
On the whole, The Salvation is a solid western. It feels like the joy of making it sucked some of the risks out of the project and in the effort to make it, it forgot it could have been so much more. A modern western is should be like a black powder Colt Navy, which I have had the privilege to fire numerous times. When you pull the trigger, you have no idea where the bullet is going. That should be your starting point for a Western. I reckon Gram would have loved it though.