Former Danish soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) lives in a wild frontier town in 1870s America. After being separated from his family for seven long years, his wife and son finally start making their way to him, but unfortunately they do not survive the journey. Devasted, Jon goes on a revenge killing spree after learning that his family was murdered.  

 

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Mads on a mission in wild Dutch Western.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Here comes a sweeping statement that happens to be true: Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is a national treasure who transcends borders.

If you tend to believe that the movies selected for a Cannes berth are better than average, Mikkelsen has been the central character in an awful lot of films shown in Cannes recently. He learned French phonetically for last year's Michael Kohlhaas and was deeply convincing. In the 2012 Cannes Competition, he brought layers of pain and incomprehension to the lynching-in-slow-motion to which he was subjected by the supposedly principled members of his own community in The Hunt. He won the Best Actor award. (That was the same year he radiated pretty much bottomless intelligence and sex appeal in A Royal Affair.) He even came off classy as the musical half of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) for which he learned to play the piano in a matter of weeks – and well enough to bluff the film's composer Gabriel Yared into thinking he was a pianist who could also act.

This year, the guy that film magazine So Film dubbed Mads Max made countryman Kristian Levring's The Salvation, a riveting riff on the Western which fit perfectly into its Midnight screening slot in Cannes. A European colleague was overheard saying "Now I understand why Americans are so attached to their guns." According to its director – a founding member of the Dogme movement – the film apparently contains some 70 references to other Westerns. Spot-the-homage is always fun, but I do believe The Salvation would communicate just fine to somebody who had never seen a Western before.

If the opening reel of The Salvation doesn't grab your attention then you're probably the sort of person who scoffs at erupting volcanoes even as molten lava approaches the spot where you're standing.

It's the 1870s and Mikkelsen plays Jon who, with his brother Peter (Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt), came to America from Denmark seven years prior to stake his claim and start a new life. Today is the day his wife and 10-year-old son arrive on the train to join him. They make a very handsome trio as they're reunited and then board a horsedrawn coach for the journey to Jon's homestead outside town. There's really only room for four adults and a child in the conveyance. They're in a tight space and soon in a tight spot. Two rotten individuals evict the honest-looking couple who have booked passage along the same route as Jon and his family. The cordially sinister duo start to cause trouble, centered on having their way with Jon's beautiful wife. The balance of power in the carriage careens back and forth but Jon's wife and son never make it to the house he built for them. Jon slaughters the two bad guys. Even a card-carrying pacifist would agree they had it coming.

Unfortunately, one of the guys Jon killed was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a beyond-vicious baddie who, with his small gang of loyal thugs, rules the upright and semi-upright citizens of Black Creek. Delarue makes it clear that he expects the town's sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and the mayor who doubles as the undertaker (Jonathan Pryce) to find the party that killed his brother in the next two hours. It's an impossible task and the citizens are made to suffer in particularly egregious ways.

Delarue figures his late brother's fetching wife Madelaine (Eva Green) shouldn't go to waste and forces himself on her. She can't complain since Indians cut out her tongue some time back. Boy can she glower, though. When Delarue figures out that Jon is the culprit, the elastic properties of frontier justice are stretched to the limit and we get to watch.

They called it the Wild West and the untamed frontier for a reason. You had to think on your feet. And if you found yourself suspended from a post in the town square with your feet not touching the ground – well, then you had to think in that position, too. Brute revenge can be satisfying, but revenge via brain power is especially gratifying. We don't just want Jon to cream the bad guys – we want him to outsmart them. He obliges.

The Salvation is not only smartly plotted, entertainingly performed and chock full of well-motivated violent flourishes, it also looks great. And the bigger the screen, the better it will look because there's grandeur in them there settings. The film was shot in South Africa with roughly 900 digitally added and/or altered scenic components successfully conspiring to convince as two towns in the Far West and their mostly unfriendly-looking surrounding landscapes.

Mikkelsen's cheekbones look as if they were carved from the same stuff as Monument Valley. Danish immigrants helped settle and build America. When Levring pulls the trigger on his camera, his aim is true.

 

Watch 'The Salvation'

Monday 6 September, 7:50pm on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 8 September, 1:20am & 10:30am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

MA15+
Denmark, 2014
Genre: Drama, Western
Language: Danish
Director: Kristian Levring
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt

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