The Salvation ✮✮✮
Once Upon a Time on the Veld
by Glenn Lovell
The Spaghetti Western is alive and well and pumping grade-A crude, thanks to Danish director Kristian Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen. Levring you may know: he’s the director of the slow-boil thriller “Fear Me Not” and, before that, the acclaimed Dogma 95 import “The King Is Alive.”
Levring’s new release is, of all things, a sprawling, guns-a-blazin’ Western. A Danish-UK-South African co-production, “The Salvation” may not have been shot in John Ford’s Monument Valley or even Sergio Leone’s southern Spain ‒ with an occasional boost from CG backdrops, South Africa’s veld subs nicely for the 1870s frontier ‒ but the film still conjures memories of the best of this sub-genre, including “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Bravados,” “The Man from Laramie,” and Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”
More, it’s another wake-up call to Hollywood: Hey, guys, if you can’t resurrect the thundering widescreen oater, there are plenty of Hawks-Ford-Mann wannabes around the globe who’ll gladly take the reins. (The industry’s treatment of Tommy Lee Jones’s ambitious “The Homesman,” which failed to find exhibitors last year, still smarts.)
Things get off to a strong start as Danish emigre brothers Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) meet a train carrying Jon’s wife and young son. Jon hasn’t seen his family in seven years and, in bandana, Stetson and low-slung holster, he’s barely recognizable to them. On the stagecoach ride to their new home, the reunion quickly turns bloody as a just-freed convict boots Jon out of the stage and assaults his wife and son.
And so the scene is set for a classic revenge Western, photographed and designed in the grand, hyperbolic style of Leone’s best horse operas. Indeed, Levring’s train-depot opening is an almost shot-for-shot homage to Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” complete with hissing locomotive, wide-angle interiors and dynamic close-ups against angry sky. (The filmmakers have wisely left Ennio Morriconi’s signature spaghetti Western scores alone and opted instead for a simpler but just as effective guitar-and-drum theme by Kasper Winding.)
Jon makes short work of the bad guy and his partner, only to lock horns with the guy’s even more bloodthirsty brother, a crooked land baron named Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Like Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West” and Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven,” this guy more than earns our hisses with acts of outrageous savagery. At Delarue’s side are the expected assortment of hatchet-faced varmints, plus his brother’s mute wife (Eva Green, sporting a wicked scar) and the town’s devious mayor-mortician (Jonathan Pryce).
Mikkelsen, who was so good as the wronged daycare worker in “The Hunt,” has built a career on laconic outsiders, and his newly minted man of the west is very much of this school: he’s at once sleepy-eyed, charismatic and deadly, a latter-day Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper riding roughshod down Vengeance Trail.
THE SALVATION ✮✮✮ With Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce, Eva Green. Directed by Kristian Levring; scripted by Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen. 92 minutes. Rated R (for adult material, shooting violence, gruesome makeup effects)