Danish director Kristian Levring makes no bones about the use of genre markers as he opens The Salvation with an indistinctive slow motion shot of a railway station in America’s West, setting the scene both in terms of familiarity and difference: here’s the slow swagger of sepia-tinted boots but captured so indistinctly as to mark the territory as radically foreign and unknown. This is where Danish pioneers Jon (Mikkelsen) and brother Peter (Persbrandt) await the arrival of Jon’s wife and son after seven years of separation. Travelling home, they’re joined on the stagecoach by a couple of drunken brutes. The shocking rape and murder of wife and son follows, to be followed in turn by Jon’s retaliatory killing of the murderers. From then on, the brothers are bounty, hounded by an unscrupulous gang leader Delarue, who’s also busy accumulating oil-bearing properties from quiescent locals.
Set in the 1870s, Levring’s film merges the harsh beauty of land and people, combining the imperceptible humour of Sergio Leone’s curled-lip protagonist with John Ford’s single-minded heroes and imposing a Morricone-indebted score onto what becomes, after the opening scenes, an unusual and explorative mixture of long-shot landscapes and painstakingly composed interiors. Playing with all these genre expectations, Levring comes close to fulfilling them.
The spell is broken, however, by odd moments of possibly unintentional audience laughter, jolting viewers into an awareness of the film’s own meta-referentiality – slightly weakening a study of revenge that manages both to celebrate and question the ethics of retribution.
The Salvation | Directed by Kristian Levring (Denmark, UK, South Africa 2014) with Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Mikael Persbrandt. Starts Oct 9.
Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.