Strongly evoking the landscapes and bold archetypical characters populating Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns yet inflected with Nordic fatalism and despair, Danish director Kristian Levring’s “The Salvation” stakes its claim as … well, what shall we call this, the first herring Western?
It’s the Wild West for certain with Leone-influenced melodrama but you can’t ignore the Scandinavian bleakness that dominates this gun-blazing tale of revenge set in a desolate outpost of civilization whose barren lands and relentless sun have seemingly turned everyone into madmen.
Levring has little interest in investigating Western lore or history but rather in manipulating characters and images from classic films he loved as a child and now plays with, like toys, as an adult.
You sense in the swooping crane shots that provide God-like views of its pitiable people, whose only occupation seems to be mayhem, rape and murder, a film has an indifferent relationship to its characters.
They are all resolute types with virtually no inner life and the story, scripted by Levring and Denmark’s most celebrated screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, lurches eagerly toward standoffs and showdowns that favor body count over coherence.
So making this Western may be a fantasy come true for Levring, but is only a pastiche offering few rewards for viewers, especially those with any inkling of what makes a real western, a genre abandoned by Hollywood years ago.
Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who played a memorable Bond villain, Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale,” as well as Hannibal Lecter in the NBC thriller “Hannibal,” here plays the story’s stoic, revenge-obsessed hero, intent on wiping out a town’s worth of bad guys to avenge the murder of his wife and son.
While you can’t blame him for this, rooting for mass murder makes a hollow exercise. And what are you to make of the other name actor aboard, the beauteous Eva Green, a French actress who frequently stars in English-language movies?
She speaks in no language this time as Indians have apparently cut out her tongue, a long-ago outrage the exact details of which are unclear.
Wearing a scar over her mouth, Green stares sullenly at everyone, especially the movie’s chief villain (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), with whom she seems to be paired in a shakedown of the entire town in order to buy up the land for oil rights.
This story takes place in 1871, mind you, years before the invention of the automobile so why they see any value in the gooey stuff is a mystery. But then much of the backstory wallows in similar vagueness, such as why the lily-livered sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and undertaker (a wasted Jonathan Pryce) seem to be on the villains’ side sometimes and other times not so much.
The whole economic basis of the desolate town’s existence is equally mysterious since no farmland or cattle ranches are anywhere and no one enters the general store except to buy bullets. Perhaps that’s it — bullets, guns and undertaking form the town’s economy.
There are a few nifty rescues and killings but as the sun sets over the patently fake Western town with bodies lying everywhere, the movie has exhausted whatever good will it establishes in a European filmmaker having fun exploring his favorite American genre with such Nordic gusto.
Opens: Opens: February 27, 2015 in Los Angeles, New York (IFC Films)
Production: Zentropa Entertainments 33, Forward Films, Spier Films
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Michael Raymond-James, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce, Nanna Oland Fabricius, Toke Lars Bjarke
Director: Kristian Levring
Screenwriters: Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen
Producer: Sisse Graum Jorgensen
Director of photography: Jens Schlosser
Production designer: Jorgen Munk
Music: Kasper Winding
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Pernille Bech Christensen
No rating, 93 minutes