This Western by the Danish director Kristian Levring has its roots in spaghetti westerns and even seems to directly reference Django with its dramatic use of a coffin. The European perspective on the American frontier story is almost always darker, more brutal, and less heroic than the homegrown version. On the surface this is a fairly straightforward revenge story about a man whose family is wiped out and who takes revenge and thus becomes entangled in a cycle of violence. Below the surface it’s a story of human venality and corruption that’s driven by the survival instinct and capitalism.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Jon, who is introduced (along with his brother), as a former Danish soldier who immigrated to America after Denmark was defeated in a war with Germany in 1864. This is a war I’d never even heard of, but it informs the tragic story that follows, which is set seven years later in 1871. Jon and his brother Peter are trying to flee the nightmare of history by pursuing the American dream, but history is impossible to escape. The story might have been a little sharper, in fact, if the villains they tangle with in America had been German immigrants, but Levring instead gives us Delarue — a veteran of the US wars against the Indians whose military experience has turned him into a sadistic killer. Delarue and Jon become embroiled in a cycle of vengeance, but Delarue has the advantage of being the local power. What’s slightly unusual is that unlike the typical American Western where the local power is someone like a cattle rancher who acts outside the law, in The Salvation Delarue turns out to be the pawn of a corporation that wants to acquire the local land for the oil and wants to do it, much to Delarue’s disgust, in strictly legal ways.
The story is a bit like a fable. The townspeople are craven, and some of them are in cahoots with Delarue. There’s a beautiful woman called the Princess (Eva Green) who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was young and who has been brutalized by the men in her life ever since. One subtle touch is that Levring has people of color in the township, although none of them is a major character. Many of the townspeople are immigrants, and we hear Danish and Italian spoken in the course of the film. For all that we hear of the Indians, we don’t see any of them. The frontier life is nasty and constrained, and the people living it are weak, vulnerable, and willing to do anything to survive.
The film is beautifully shot, with muted colors and a very grainy, painterly look. Delarue and his gang live in a burnt out town that’s never explained but is utterly striking visually and as a metaphor for human ruination of the world. Jon loses everything and must face Delarue’s gang with only a couple of unlikely sidekicks. Perhaps this leads to an unlikely resolution of the revenge cycle, but that’s mitigated by the endcrawl coda revealing who has really won the West. The revenge cycle is completely irrelevant to the powers that be. Is salvation irrelevant too?