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The Salvation

(Kristian Levring, Denmark/UK/South Africa/Sweden/Belgium, 2014): Pinned somewhere between the mythic and miniature, Kristian Levring’s scraped-to-the-bones revenge saga The Salvation shares many of the same essentialist ambitions as Alejandro Innaritu’s The Revenant but none of its epic sweep. At 90 or so minutes, it gets its job done so quickly you may wish it had taken more time to relish its own task, but there’s also something to be said for its blunt conviction that the basic business of the western is duly motivated action, and this it delivers with a kind of clockwork brute force.

Opening at a desert train station that — like so many of its fly-by references — evokes Once Upon a Time in the West only long enough to register before shifting into Stagecoach, Levring’s movie proceeds in full gallop: a veteran of the doomed Danish war against Germany, Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen, as smoothly wind-worn as the CGI-enhanced stone formations that plant Monument Valley in the South African landscape) has awaited the arrival in the new world of his wife (Nanna Old Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke) for seven years. On the way to the homestead he’s built for his loved ones, his family is killed by a pair of dirtbag passengers who throw Jensen into the desert night. Catching up with them on foot and by stark moonlight, Jensen wipes the killers out only to learn one of the dead is the younger brother of a calmly deranged, railroad-backed war vet named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who holds an entire town under threat of mass murder unless they help him flush his brother’s murderer out. Refusing, in true Billy the Kid fashion, to flee and in constant threat of being turned in by the cowed townspeople, Jensen’s owns up to the collateral consequences of his wrath by going after Delarue and company single-handed. As we know he must and relish when he does. Any other outcome would be a waste of a western.

Striving both for suggestive economy and panoramic homage, Levring has forged a narrative and a style that attempts to blunt the need for excess exposition by referencing all we need to know in terms of shared pop cultural memory. That’s a risk, because it presumes a common familiarity with a genre hardly so common or familiar any more, but it also means The Salvation‘s tone of pulp operatic pre-determination is motivated by a kind of force that renders anything but playing out the ritual irrelevant and maybe even disingenuous, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave you wanting more by way of meat on the bones anyway.

As Jon, for instance, Mikkelsen is so strikingly charismatic that the very iconographic qualities Levring clearly sought in the character beg for further articulation precisely because the actor conveys them with such potent implication. Because he’s a war veteran — another DNA-deep western trope — we know he’s seen (and probably caused) some horror himself, and because he’s Danish we know he’s an outsider in a land of outsiders. And we also understand that he’s likely struggled to keep the peace within himself in these years on the frontier, and that it’s likely been tested to the point of combustion before the murder of his family presses the inevitable. All this we know more or less simply by reading the extraordinary lines and surfaces on Mikkelsen’s savagely beautiful face, and by correctly reading that stoic aura of cool resignation for what it is: a man answering the call he always knew was coming, and an acceptance that his true destiny wasn’t the farm and the family anyway, but the hell that their destruction blew the hinges off. This is what he’s here for.

But in this case the unstated speaks teasingly: Mikkelsen is so freighted with bubbling undercurrent the movie frustrates in its refusal to plunge. How effectively even the most pared-down of dialogue sequences might have conveyed more about Jon’s relationship with his family, his affinity with his brother, his haunted past, perhaps even his already simmering disenchantment with America. (Itself as persistent a theme in  contemporary Danish movies as violence is to the western.) If anything then, Mikkelsen is overly magnetic as the man with a past provoked to the wrath the title promises. Unlike say, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Eastwood or Charles Bronson, Jon’s silence isn’t sufficient unto itself. It amounts to an untapped resource, an act of muffling as conspicuous as the woman (Eva Green) whose tongue was cut out by Native captors, and the psychological equivalent of that black sludge bubbling up from the ground the movie suggests is the real reason why all this blood must spill. There’s oil in the ground.

The surging oil, the implacable railroad, the nation of immigrants, the trauma of combat, the corruption, the greed, the exposure of incipient civilization as a matter of corporate influence and community nothing but a lie everyone tells themselves to justify what’s truly about fear and self-interest: Levring’s movie touches upon all of these tantalizingly revisionist elements in the western but only as a matter of generic pastiche. Like very many non-Americans and post-Western era filmmakers who have been drawn and inspired by the genre, there is as sense in Levring’s interpretation that it’s all a matter of codes, signs, conventions and other forms of dress-up. But it’s not: for all its spectacular respect and infinite versatility when it comes to re-arranging fixed elements, the Western was also a sturdy and powerful vehicle for the probing of character and psychology, for using the characters within the frame to probe the very reason why the frame of the western itself was so powerfully alluring. Yes, a man resorts to violence in the western because that’s all he can do and what he must do. But without the question of why he feels he must, and why there is a such popular genre to specifically engage with that question– and other matters of basic moral and civic import — the Western is pumping a shallow well.

The Salvation is too smart, beautiful and gamely performed (Morgan, Pryce and a fiercely mute Green are especially strong) not to be entirely captivating throughout most of its sprint-to-finish running time, especially for viewers sufficiently versed in its flash-card display of references — Ford, Leone, Shane, Anthony Mann, High Noon, Unforgiven — to check them off as they go by. But in hindsight it feels like it’s forsaken the deeper forms of nuanced human complexity that made the western such a powerful genre in the first place: as a framework in which that very complexity could be addressed, articulated and put to the test. In hindsight, this movie’s confusion of codes with meaning only helps make the popular embracing of The Revenant — ostensibly so similar in theme and mythic elemental form — that much more understandable. In its deliberate stretching of the simplest of revenge stories into a kind of epic ballad, The Revenant at least insisted it wasn’t really about what it seemed to be about: surely all this meticulous trudging toward the inevitable had to indicate that we should be reading this as metaphor. But for what? The endurance or re-birth of spirit? For the awestruck appreciation of nature? The divine arrogance of the human will? Whatever: at least the movie insisted viewing it as a coded ritual expressing something behind the ritual. The Salvation also compels a certain interpretation of ritual, but can’t be bothered to wait for it. It’s an action movie too smart for its own good. If it only felt as much as it knew, it might have been as deep as its star’s eyes. (