Shot in South Africa, but set somewhere on the lawless American frontier, “The Salvation” answers that great unasked question of how a Western might sound with a Danish accent. In putting his brand on the dusty genre, director Kristian Levring (“The King Is Alive”) has abandoned all trace of his involvement with the Dogma 95 movement, delivering a highly stylized widescreen revenge picture loaded with weapons and driven entirely by “superficial action” (both no-nos before). Midnight-movie aficionados should approve — as will “Hannibal” star Mads Mikkelsen’s growing fanbase — though the pic is trying to drink from a dry well where box office is concerned.
Of course, Mikkelsen’s English is good enough that he could play an American native, or even a Native American, on account of his sharp profile. Instead, Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have opted to keep him Danish, describing his character, Jon, as an ex-soldier who moved to the States after losing to the Germans on the battlefield in 1864. Separated from his family, Jon poured all his energy into establishing his homestead not far from Black Creek, a town where the undertaker is mayor (Jonathan Pryce), the priest is sheriff (Douglas Henshall), and the water runs thick with oil — which, according to the cynical last shot, is all that matters where progress is concerned.
After seven long years, it’s finally time to reunite with his wife (singer Nanna Oland Fabricius, better known Stateside as Oh Land) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke), though law and order barely exist on the frontier, to the extent that these two angelic outsiders don’t even survive the stagecoach ride home. From a script perspective, it’s troubling to realize that these two characters exist only to be raped and murdered, though given the film’s eventual body count, that philosophy seems to extend to nearly everyone onscreen.
In this case, the culprit makes it a little too easy for Jon to catch him in the act of defiling his wife. No one dies by just one bullet here, and though few would call Jon’s response an overreaction, he might have under-considered the repercussions of killing a direct relative of Black Creek’s local land baron, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Most of the subsequent half-hour derives straight from the new-Western playbook, which may as well feature a photo of Gene Hackman under “villain” (that’s the archetype on whom Morgan seems to have modeled his performance), among myriad other cliches far more R-rated than those the genre recycled during its first 100 years.
Levring can’t touch “Unforgiven,” but he’s certainly capable of rivaling a flashier entry like “The Quick and the Dead,” improving on the latter by keeping the overkill camerawork and spaghetti-flavored score under control. D.p. Jens Schlosser captures some of the most breathtaking vistas the genre has seen, with South Africa doubling for somewhere not far from Monument Valley, while composer Kasper Winding subtly orchestrates tension with drums and strings. Together, they seem to be aiming for something that will stand the test of time, though there’s really only one ingredient for which “The Salvation” is likely to be remembered: Eva Green.
On the brink of surpassing Helena Bonham Carter as the reigning queen of transformative, high-camp performances, Green plays the widow of the man Jon killed. Like Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman,” she was tattooed and scarred by Indians, who kidnapped her and cut out her tongue when young. She has been living with the Delarues ever since as their mute yet imposing “princess,” though her only loyalty is to herself, which makes for some unpredictable alliances near the climax, when Jon and his brother (Mikael Persbrandt) finally stand up to the corrupt family.
Granted, “The Salvation” isn’t the first Danish Western — not by a mile. Back in 1970, Carl Ottosen started a mini-trend with “Tough Guys of the Prairie,” a silly picture brimming with singing cowboys and hokey humor, and years later, Lars von Trier deconstructed the form in 2003’s “Dogville.” But Levring is certainly the first of his countrymen to render an homage to the genre with quite this level of skill, while his outsider status allows him to damn every last American in the godforsaken land of his own invention.