The Salvation has style to burn, but it’s of a distancing sort that affirms the film as a simulation of a simulation. Set in 1870s America, this brutal western is clearly taken with the work of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and the Michael Cimino of Heaven’s Gate, running their brands of myth-making through a modern blender of gauzy cinematography that often likens the images to animation. Every shot is as wide as possible, even if its subject calls for intimacy, such as the interiors of the wagon coaches, which appear to be the size of luxury airliners here. Colors are simultaneously mooted and heightened with shards of silvery lighting so as to appear bronzed in charcoal ash, in the style of Zach Snyder’s work, or they’re emphasized with a vividness that approaches Technicolor, such as the stray articles of clothing that randomly glow in reds and greens, bringing to mind the palette of The Wizard of Oz. Director Kristian Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser are also fond of that most Fordian of flourishes: a tracking shot that follows a human subject from the foreground of the setting to the background, often moving through doorways that serve as found frames so as underline the tactility of the setting.
These touches are accomplished and amusing, to a point, but tactility is precisely what The Salvation is missing. With a few exceptions, like a powerful shot that allows us to feel the weight of a train as it pulls into a station, momentarily disorienting a character who’s searching for his family, there’s little of the evocative detail here that one craves from a good or even so-so western. Looking at the film, which is set in Monument Valley, one isn’t aware of the sand, the rocks, or the heat of the blazing sun, or of the creaking of the wood of the buildings or the wagons. One doesn’t feel the wear and tear of life in this Everysaloontown, or correspondingly sense the politics of the community as they’re shaped by the confines of the remote geography. These things are expressed in expository dialogue, but the images abound in vague, impersonally pretty compositions that fail to reveal any meaningfully immersive details. Like Kevin Costner’s Open Range, The Salvation mistakes generality for iconography.
Which leaves us with the plot, a standard, somewhat plodding revenge tale that’s, fortunately, performed by good actors. As the suffering hero, Mads Mikkelsen gives a performance that’s almost too subtle and interior for these aesthetics, which threaten to swallow him up, though he seasons his character with assured, astute physicality. When this Danish settler fires a gun, for instance, you sense the tremors of war that course through his body, elaborating on a past spent as a soldier. Playing a mute frontier businesswoman whose tongue was cut out long ago by “Indians,” Eva Green goes bolder than Mikkelsen physically, particularly with her eyes, so as to compete with frequent sparring partner Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays the Big Bad, a former regulator who’s tortured “Indians” for so long as to have developed a blood lust that he now sates with victims of his own race.
It’s Morgan, an underrated actor, who keys into the film’s latent cartoon wavelength, fashioning a caricature that complements the bigness of the fussy formality. Morgan’s playing the sort of asshole who believes in manifest destiny, helping to forge a path of subjugation that still shapes the social structure of this country. With his strapping physicality and alternatingly frightening and amusing molasses voice, the actor’s essentially channeling Powers Boothe at the height of his heyday of cinematic villainy, occasionally threatening to transform The Salvation into something more vital than the glorified coffee-table book it ultimately is: a comedic gloss on blowhard myopia.
The image boasts sharp, bombastically painterly colors. Reds and greens are notably lustrous, and the silver hues that pervade the cinematography are sharp and well-delineated. Ditto the blacks. Detail is impressive, especially in the straightforward, un-doctored landscape shots (there appear to be precious few), which are rich in the textures that western fans crave: sand, rocks, spare plant life, and the buildings that are evocative of great stress and strain. The image is almost too pristine, scanning as impersonally "digital," but that appears to be in keeping with the intentions of the film. Both soundtracks are rich and sumptuous, preserving the nuances of a well-mixed, action-heavy genre film. The gunfights notably resound with good, multi-planed dimension.
A 45-minute collection of interviews includes conversations with most of the principal actors as well as the co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen. Everyone speaks of their enthusiasm about the project in largely unsurprising fashions, though these charismatic speakers are nevertheless enjoyable to watch. A few telling details emerge: Mads Mikkelsen recalls his former experience as a dancer, which figures given his expressive sense of physicality, while several of the collaborators speak of the precision of Kristian Levring’s vision and preparation, which included a 96-minute pre-visualization of the entire film. This "mapped-out" quality definitely registers in the finished work, which is somewhat self-conscious and constrained by aesthetic anal-retentiveness. The theatrical trailer and a short, negligible "behind-the-scenes" featurette round out a decent but routine package.
The Salvation is hemmed in by its fealty to the ghosts of westerns’ past, though a good, game cast offers quite a bit of compensation. More for western newbies than old-school aficionados.