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Mads Mikkelsen — the steel-hard Viking in Valhalla Rising, the persecuted good man in The Hunt — in a Western? Where do I sign up?

Well, I signed up. I’m not entirely sorry I saw The Salvation, a Western with a very modern production. But I’m sorry to see the Western succumbing to the computer aesthetics of modern CGI and green-screen productions.

An expressionist view of the old west
An expressionist view of the old west

Terrorized Townsfolk

Jon (Mikkelsen), a Danish immigrant to the American West, awaits his wife and 10-year-old son at a bustling old-west train station. After an awkward and heartfelt reunion, in a coach on their way to Jon’s homestead, a pair of bad men take it in their heads to rape his pretty wife. Death and revenge follow.

The opening is reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West, but quickly The Salvation takes its own path.

It turns out that the two thugs are missed by their boss Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a large, grizzled man who walks around in a blood-red ankle-length wool coat. Delarue insists on exacting vengeance. If the town leaders can’t produce the perpetrators, then Delarue will kill random citizens as his form of mathematical justice. The cowardly mayor (Jonathan Pryce) bows his head to Delarue’s demands.

Delarue’s moll is Madelaine (Eva Green), a mute with a scar running across her mouth. She’s one of many disfigured townspeople — in fact most of the population seems to be wounded or shell-shocked. Madelaine is a tough broad, at least at first, though she is still capable of being shocked by Delarue’s cruelty.

Jon is unaware that he’s being hunted by Delarue, and the mayor doesn’t know that Jon is the man who killed Delarue’s thugs. That allows them to meet and part amicably — Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) have no reason to stay so they are selling their land to the mayor and heading west.

A kid at the general store asks Jon to stay; he says Jon and Peter are the only two men in town who can shoot (they were trained in the Danish army). But Jon and his brother understand the better part of valor is discretion and the make plans to leave.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Western if the heroes left town in the middle. Writers Anders Thomas Jensen and Kristian Levring implement variations on the standard Western tropes while director Levring brings things to a climactic showdown in the streets of the town.

Carbon

I think a specific state was mentioned but I didn’t note it; the town itself ought to be called Carbon. There’s an open oil pit on one edge of town. There’s a whole section of town that seems to have burned down, yet charred frames remain; as though it weren’t worth the effort to knock them down and rebuild. And at the other end of town there’s an oil derrick.

The Salvation doesn’t spell out whether the oil means volatility and explosive potential, or stench, or greed. Probably all of the above.

Westerns are usually set a generation or two before the oil boom. Indeed, most of the people in town seem oblivious to the energy potential. But somewhere, up among the elite, the film suggests that there are men who expect to get rich in oil.

One of the themes of The Salvation is, as Bob Dylan would say, you gotta serve somebody. The rapist thug has a boss who likes to kill civilians, but even he serves a boss intent on large-scale fraud, and we presume he’s part of an even bigger organization in the business of even bigger crimes.

So yes, there’s enough fodder here for a good western, or a smaller version of There Will Be Blood.

Instagram Filters

But frankly it was a bit of work to see past the Western-movie clichés and actually get into the story. I don’t think it was the performances or the costumes that held me back. I think it was the photography. And I use the term lightly.

The problems begin in the coach as Jon and his family ride to the homestead. Night is falling and purple light infuses the scene. It’s not day-for-night, it’s more like expressionistic post-production image manipulation. It doesn’t look like a carriage in the old west, it looks like an experiment in a Photoshop tutorial.

Repeatedly, the film tries to enhance the ominous presence of a burned-up town with what look like Instagram filters on the photography. A rainstorm turns day into “night.” Dust and smoke obscure the horizon as though the setting were modern-day Beijing and not the sparsely populated American west.

I think I understand the aesthetic that Levring and his production team were going for — it’s the German Expressionist idea that a setting should reflect the emotional state of its inhabitants. But computer power is cheap, and even computer amateurs are familiar with image processing these days. Without enough artistry or subtlety you’re likely to distract users of Instagram with recognizable tricks for “enhancing” the image. For me, the “enhancement” was a big detraction — especially in a Western, a genre with a long tradition of landscape playing an important part of the film.