An international co-production with a Danish director, star, and subject, The Salvation seems positioned to offer a novel interpretation of a well-worn genre, with the arid grasslands of South Africa standing in for the broad, desolate stretches of the mythical American West. Yet while the deserts of Spain stimulated Sergio Leone toward epic innovation, no such inspiration appears to have struck Kristian Levring, a Dogme veteran who abandons all of the movement’s rules for this dry, unimaginatively assembled fable. Avoiding any insight whatsoever into the lives of 19th-century Danish immigrants, the film uses its émigré characters as mere setup for another monotonous revenge saga, a tale of corruption and retribution that’s almost entirely constructed from clichés.
After toiling for seven years alongside brother and fellow former soldier Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is finally joined in his adopted homeland by his wife and son, who are just as quickly taken from him at the whim of a murderous outlaw. The bibilical-style suffering escalates once Jon dispatches the man, setting off a struggle with his even more sinister brother, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the leader of a band of cavalrymen turned dust-encrusted bandits. Delarue’s campaign of vengeance is aided by the cowardice of town leaders, who seem more concerned with appeasing the evil horde than standing up to them, a scenario which deepens with the revelation of nefarious forces pulling all the strings. In unspooling this story, Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen pull nearly every beat from the established western playbook, assuring that every scene’s outcome is already foretold, leaving little to focus on beside the effortless pictorialism of the setting, supplemented by shaky CG and a handsome, symmetrically shot presentation.
Were a total lack of originality its only issue, The Salvation would be harmless (the film’s rote prettiness is enough to sustain it as a faux-weighty trifle), but in its slavish recreation of the mood and spirit of the dark-toned westerns of yore, the film ends up passing down the genre’s worst genetic traits. This is mostly thanks to the compulsion to cater to modern tastes by amplifying the carnage, the lazy devotion to which shatters the story’s supposed ambivalence about violence, relishing its dramatic and aesthetic power. The result is a boneheaded reimagining of High Noon by way of High Plains Drifter, which pretends to expose the rotten foundations of modern society while perpetuating poisonously old-fashioned notions of bravery and valor, the grimy glamour of heroes selflessly compromising their own moral standing to commit righteous acts of brutality. Aping the western’s most obvious surface features, The Salvation achieves nothing more than hollow caricature, too caught up in dumb dress-up pageantry to accomplish anything else.