Directed by Kristian Levring
Written by Anders Thomas Jensen and Levring
Produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen
Released by IFC Films
English and Danish with English subtitles
Denmark/UK/South Africa/Sweden/Belgium. 92 min. Rated R
With Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jonathan Pryce

One unwritten rule of thumb for contemporary westerns is that the level of violence should probably match the quality of the photography—a contrast of vistas and blood. Danish director Kristian Levring’s The Salvation sticks close to this idea, as its sordid tale of revenge in the 1870’s American West draws a gorgeously painted picture of high contrast and gritty ’70’s-style violence.

Mads Mikkelson, star of TV’s Hannibal, as well as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, stars in this international co-production (filmed in South Africa) as Jon, a homesteader in the desolate Southwest with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt). They fled their native land after the defeat of the Danish Army by the Germans. After years apart, Jon’s wife and son arrive from their long journey, but the family’s reunion is short-lived. They are assaulted. In the course of Jon taking revenge, he becomes the target of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a local land baron.

That’s just the gist of this immaculately shot film, with cinematography by Jens Schlosser. Some of the camera movements are particularly graceful and look really great in the context of the fast-paced shoot outs. In terms of tone, it’s very reminiscent of certain Clint Eastwood films, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales for its tale of a man seeking revenge and for its kill count. Like many of its peers, there is also a Salvation subplot of land deeds and oil prospecting occurring under the noses of local townsfolk, who aren’t so much naive as rather quickly and almost easily drawn into a world of horrendous violence. Perhaps the movie is clueing us into the nature of the citizens when the priest is the sheriff and the undertaker is the mayor (that almost sounds like the premise for a sitcom).

The supporting cast is solid for the most part. Morgan provides his usual grim, gallows humor voice for a hideous character; Jonathon Pryce plays Mayor Keane; and Mikael Persbrandt provides a sterling turn in a handful of definitively badass fight scenes. Sadly, what feels like a somewhat missed opportunity is Eva Green as Madelaine, Delarue’s sister-in-law, who had her tongue cut out after a horrible assault in the past in yet another example of the horrific violence towards women in the west (it occurs on multiple levels in this film). After such rave reviews for her performances in 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it feels like a waste to use Green largely as a beautiful, horribly abused woman.

Of course, everyone comes to this to really see TV’s Hannibal Lecter shoot people in the Old West. Mikkelson’s rough and steady performance starts the film on a strong note, but the narrative focus tilts toward Peter and Madelaine. Still, Mikkelson’s rugged mannerisms kick in strongly in the final showdown. Just watching his face is fascinating; he is brutal and clean looking at the same time and remains continually cool and composed, even when planning to brutally murder a whole squad of gangly goons.

Little details, such as a pointedly placed cigar and terrible haircuts, stand out quite nicely. It makes you imagine the writers had other kind of details in the characters’ backstories that we don’t quite know about. Some of the dialogue is a little overdone, but the performances make up for it, and it doesn’t hurt that the film is only 92 minutes. Any diehard of Mikkelson will no doubt see it.

Go get ’em, Mads.