RECAP: The Salvation

The Salvation (2014): Kristian Levring

The Western, it is said, is a dead film genre. Denmark, a land settled for thousands of years before Americans tried their hands settling the Great Plains, threw their hats in the ring with The Salvation.

The movie barely saw US theaters, an interesting aspect considering the film was made in English and set in the US. Such was the power, however waned, of American films in general and Westerns in particular.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: After his family is murdered, a Danish immigrant embarks on revenge in the Old West. 

Hero (5/10)

Perennial villain-played Mads Mikkelsen plays Danish immigrant Jon Jensen, a man who’s lived in America for the seven years following the Second Schleswig War of 1864.

Jensen has waited seven long years to set sight on his wife and son. He walks the length of the train platform, peering for them.

When they finally set foot on the platform planks, Jensen sees them, but he doesn’t run to them. He sees them, really sees them, and captures the moment in his mind before walking to embrace them. They years of longing are present on Mikkelsen’s face.

What happened to Jensen’s family is tragic and mercifully not shown. Jensen’s reaction to being kicked from the stagecoach is to run. And run. And run.

Jensen is a man of action. No one is able to scare him, not even the two guys in the stagecoach. He fears for his family, but he is not scared for himself. War will leech fear from a man.

No person in the county can match Jensen’s marksmanship. His first shot comes after he finds the stagecoach. He picks up a rifle and cocks it. On one knee, in the dark, from 100 yards, Jensen shoots out a gas lamp hanging from the coach.

I’m sure he was a crack shot in the army in Denmark, but in the Wild West, guns don’t get made any better. Smith and Wesson sure make a good gun, but as good as Jensen can shoot it? I wonder.

Anyway, Jensen knows how to fight the powers that control Black Creek–unmitigated power and determination. Time and again Jensen keeps coming.

A widow from the town shoots at a thirsty Jensen; he doesn’t slow down. The villain’s fresh-out-of-jail brother kicks him from a moving stagecoach; Jensen gets up and runs until he can’t, and then he runs more.

Jensen shows despair for his family’s murders. He rides through the night to his brother Peter’s place with the dead bodies. When his brother returns, Jensen allows himself the space to cry. He will take revenge, but only after the tears flow. At least we know he is not so hard-hearted.

Mikkelsen is the perfect actor for revenge fantasies. His face always looks ready to murder the next person to walk into his line of sight.

Villain (6/10)

Jensen’s family is dead before we lay eyes on the Salvation‘s chief antagonist, Henry De La Rue. Jeffrey Dean Morgan wears the handlebar mustache of evil and a terrific red duster jacket.

Morgan is a fine actor, but I can’t get past his bland appearance. To me he looks like the composite answer to “What does a white guy in his 40s look like?” It’s hard to find the sinister in the mundane.

But Morgan tries. His De La Rue is about as evil as they come. When he first arrives in Black Creek to view his brother’s body, he looks at it and asks only that the undertaker make certain the body doesn’t stink of booze. Just so you know where his head’s at.

Next he demands that the sheriff find the killer in two hours, or De La Rue starts killing. But he’s kind enough to leave the Sophie’s choice to the sheriff. “You choose two, or I will take four.”

If you’re still not convinced that he’s a jerk, wait until they go outside. The sheriff doesn’t find De La Rue’s brother’s killer in time, but De La Rue is a man of his word. He murders the two chosen townsfolk.

Still not convinced? OK, how about De La Rue kills a third person because the first two, a grandmother and an amputee, “didn’t add up.”

Convinced now? Good. Minute for minute, De La Rue might have one of the highest evil act counts in modern cinema. Morgan might be the correct actor for the role because he could be that strange uncle of yours who lives in a trailer surrounded by rusting dirt bikes.

Morgan’s Everyman-ness allows viewers to project onto him their fears in exactly the way Mikkelsen’s face doesn’t. Says one character of De La Rue, “Killing all those Indians must have unsettled his mind.” Indeed.

De La Rue rapes his brother’s widow and later authorizes her gang rape. That he calls her Princess adds insult. De La Rue also extracts protection payments from Black Creek, and if he finds that ironic he doesn’t show.

De La Rue possibly fought in the Civil War, like countless millions of American men, and certainly fought to kill Indians.

Action/Effects (4/10)

My favorite scene took place without a shot fired. Jensen and his family reunite and board a stagecoach bound away from the train station.

Joining them are two men, one a chatty brat and the other a hard faced brute. Turns out that the chatty guy is Paul, the brother of De La Rue, but we hardly know that yet.

Paul greets the family and gathers the particulars about the family. He’s a creep right off the bat, likely drunk. He asks Jensen what it’s like to be without a woman for seven. “Funny you should ask,” Jensen doesn’t say but could have.

Paul, just sprung from the slammer, is horny. He reaches under Mrs. Jensen’s skirt. Jensen says, “Don’t do that,” as the hard man stares. We know this will not end well.

Marie Jensen has a stare to match the hard-faced guy, but not the guns. He draws a pistol and Paul pulls Marie to him.

Jensen calmly tells Marie to bite Paul’s ear. She listens. Quick as a flash the gun is on the floor and Jensen has drawn his gun on the hard-faced man.

He tells his boy to get on the floor of the stagecoach, moving all this time, and grab the gun. Jensen tells him to stay on the floor. The boy doesn’t listen. Next thing he knows there’s a knife at his throat.

The tables have turned again again. Paul handles two guns and tells Jensen that he doesn’t like him. That ruined Jensen’s day, I bet, and kicks him out of the coach.

Jensen is mad, but he won’t let that get in his way. He stands up and runs through the night, even as the coach recedes in the distance.

He runs when he comes upon his son’s dead body. Back lit by a bright, eerie moon, Jensen takes the boy and runs.

He’s still running when he comes upon the coach parked by some woods. Jensen takes a gun and shoots out a lamp. THen he shoots the hard-faced man. Paul, scared, flees into the woods, saying that he never touched the boy, as if that will solve everything.

Jensen shoots eight times at and into Paul, killing him with a head shot and emptying the cartridge into the body.

In this scene we learned that Jensen is gentle when he wishes and ruthless when he wishes. He doesn’t hesitate and always knows what to do.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Jensen wasn’t alone battling De La Rue. Blood is thicker than water, but is it thicker than oil? That question is never raised in The Salvation.

Mikael Persbrandt plays Peter Jensen, a man even grimmer and more determined than Jon, if such things can be believed.

We first meet Peter at the train station, where he greets his brother’s family. We learn he’s a man who enjoys a night in town every once-in-a-while (wink wink nudge nudge).

Later we see him in town trying to sell skins to move west. He knows the jig is up in town and wants out. When the kid chides him, asking him why he won’t fight De La Rue, Peter tells him that he learned a lesson from the Danish War. “Don’t get into a fight you know you’re going to lose.”

Peter gets into the fight. Or rather he’s gotten into it when the sheriff arrests him and throws him in jail. Jensen is dragged away to meet De La Rue.

Peter has the scene of the film, in which he tricks the jailor and sheriff deputy, to approach him in the cell. Peter knocks him out takes the keys, buying time to rescue his brother from De La Rue.

Eva Green plays Madelaine, aka Princess, wife of De La Rue’s brother, the man Jensen killed in the opening minutes. Green scowls her way through the silent role, silent because natives cut out her tongue. The gash on both her lips remind us that she can’t speak.

Green tries her best with the role, but it’s a doozy. Madelaine first appears to be on De La Rue’s side. She watches Jensen as he’s strung up to bake for days in the sun, her face a mask of anger. Jensen did kill her husband, no matter the reasons

Quickly we learn that she is as much De La Rue’s victim as all others in Black Creek. In a well conceived scene, De La Rue lies on a bed, post-coitus, musing about how long he’s waited to sleep with his brother’s wife.

Madelaine huffs in profile on the bed, listening to De La Rue speak of her tongue’s removal. “I see it as a gift,” he says, “to me.” Ouch. He yammers about moving to New Orleans with her and blah blah blah. Finally, Madelaine turns her head to reveal a bloody nose.

While De La Rue and his crew chase the Jensen brother overnight, Madelaine cleans out the safe in her rapist’s bank. She takes the cash onto the train out of town. It’s the lone time she looks scared. To her, everyone is a De La Rue agent. To us, too. That guy’s everywhere.

The train leaves town and she feels safe, for about three seconds until the train stops in the middle of nowhere. She looks out her window and sees a bunch of guys on horseback. Bummer. They catch her of course and bring her back to De La Rue, who offers her person to his entire crew.

Madelaine’s angry looks never leave her face, except after she and Jensen kill De La Rue. No wonder, her times raped in The Salvation exceeds her words spoken.

Henchmen (2/8)

De La Rue has plenty of men at his disposal, and they are frequently disposed. As Jensen hunts De La Rue in his charred compound, several of these men are dispatched to kill Jensen and are in turn killed.

De La Rue doesn’t even leave the bank until most of them are dead. There are so many and they die so quickly that they are better considered en masse.

De La Rue’s men effectively carry out their master’s will. They act as his right and left hands, never questioning his ideas.

When Madelaine escapes with thousands in cash, De La Rue’s men ride down the train and stop it. The men bring Jensen, unscathed, to their man’s compound.

The only guy with personality was the man with glasses, who smirked and smoked in a few scenes. Look what that got him–set on fire. When people say smoking can kill you, they don’t usually mean instantly.

De La Rue is a bad man, but he’s not the brains of his operation. Standard Atlantic Oil (any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental) pays De La Rue to scare people from Black Creek.

In one scene a guy from SAO chides De La Rue for his methods. The villain says that if “you let me do things my way” the town would be empty in a week. The money man says that the people of Black Creek “aren’t savages,” and thus must be dealt with in a civilized manner.

Don’t worry folks, the murder and mayhem are above board and civilized.

Jonathan Pryce plays Black Creek’s mayor Keane. Keane also undertakes the town’s dead citizens. I’ve racked my brain thinking of ways these jobs can synergize, but I can’t. Keane is a full-on coward, and thus a strange role for Pryce, who has made a career playing weirdoes and bullies, but rarely wimps.

Pryce pulls it off, even when Mayor Keane actually says, “I’m the mayor of this town.” He says so just before Jensen orders him into a coffin and murders him.

Keane has bought up parcel after parcel of Black Creek for De La Rue to take and give to the Atlantic Standard company. What Keane gets out of this is unclear, but it’s probably money and a chance to continue living. Lucky guy.

Stunts (2/6)

There is great brutality in the West. De La Rue captures Peter Jensen and drags him through the land. Jensen, hiding, watches his brother’s head bang against the ground.

In another scene, Jensen wakes to find his wrists tied to a post in De La Rue’s compound, his toes dangling above the dirt. He gets slapped around a couple times.

Without doubt, the best stunt comes courtesy of the guy who ran around while on fire. Guys catching fire are always going to be hot in the set. Yuk yuk yuk. Seriously, the guy runs around for a few moments before collapsing and being mercifully shot.

Climax (3/6)

Jensen goes to De La Rue’s compound to take revenge. Unwillingly he enlists the young store clerk ___, who claims he “is not a kid. I just turned 16 in May.”

Jensen bought a lot of guns from the general store, and he’s going to use most of them. Perhaps his biggest mistake is attacking in daylight. Always want the cover of darkness when outnumbered like he is and using surprise.

The kid starts a fire on the outskirts of the former town. This draws attention, and the kids pops off a few shots though he hits no one.

That fire was a distraction so Jensen, presumably, could light the barn on fire. Two baddies rush to corral the horses fleeing from the fire. Pan zoom to Jensen prone beneath the foundation of a charred building. He caps three shots into two guys before shuffling off.

Next, the kid climbs a ladder to the roof of the highest building still intact, across the street from the bank/headquarters. He skulks across the roof toward a man guarding Madelaine. The kid shoots the guard in the gut.

Beneath the roof is the glasses guy nursing a cigar. He hears the kid clomping around and investigates, following the sound upstairs to the room with a tied-up Madelaine and her most recent rapist.

Glasses guy unloads six shots into the roof until he hears a thud. Happily he grins satisfaction at his kill. The camera frames the six bullet holes as a liquid pours through one, then two, then three of the holes.

It’s the kerosene Jensen bought, and glasses guy realizes it when it drips on his lit cigar and catches fire. He runs around screaming and catching curtains on fire before another De La Rue goon shows him mercy by killing him.

Jensen is outside and lurking behind a charred wall. He sees the kid’s dead body on the ground. If the gunshots didn’t kill him, the fall from two-plus stories must have.

Jensen is not the only person stalking. A large bald man has Jensen’s position reckoned, if not pinned. Jensen sees the fire in the bank and notes a German man escaping with the bund Madelaine.

Jensen lines up another of his magnificent shots and shoots the guy in his nethers. He falls from the roof, but not with Madelaine.

The bald guy shoots at Jensen, missing but driving the agitator to the ground. Finally De La Rue comes outside. He joins the hunt since most of his guys are dead.

We don’t know where Jensen is, but the bald man seems to have him. Cut to images of bullets poking holes in the floor that allow the light in. Jensen’s gun is on the ground, but he’s not.

Cut to the bald man, ammo spent, bending down to peer through a bullet hole. His head fills the screen. Something terrible is about to happen. I cringed for a gunshot.

Instead the man screams and yanks his head back, revealing the knife tip that pierced his eye. Jensen climbs from a hole to shoot the bald man in the back.

As soon as Jensen goes outside De La Rue shoots him in the shoulder. The bad guy stands over his foe. With slight admiration he says, “I underestimated you, soldier.”

De La Rue starts another sentence but doesn’t finish it because Madelaine pops two caps in him. This was the surprise of the movie, and a welcome one.

De La Rue faces her as Jensen stands in back. He looks to Madelaine, as if to offer her the shot. She declines, leaving Jensen the chance to finish the scourge of Black Creek execution style.

When the sheriff arrives, flies are already buzzing around De La Rue’s corpse.

Jokes (1/4)

Peter provides the comic relief. He’s as much of a badass as brother Jon, but without the emotional baggage of having his family murdered. Thus, he can make jokes.

Peter’s best scene comes when he’s in jail. His jailor is the man he punched in the face, prompting his arrest. Does Peter assuage his captor with kind words?

“Sorry to turn my back on you,” Peter says as he sits on the floor of his cell, “but the view is better from here.” BOOM. The captor doesn’t like that. Peter later says, “You were ugly before I knocked out your teeth.” That gets a rise from the dude. He saunters over to beat him, despite a warning from the sheriff not to. Peter grabs the guy’s leg, yanks him down, and knocks him out.

That was about it for jokes. But out on the Plains, jokes are for dead men.

Setting (2/4)

No Western can be made without gorgeous, expansive scenery. The Danish team went all the way to South Africa for its desertscapes.

Yeah, South Africa. It ain’t Colorado or Nebraska, but what’s authentic about Westerns anyway? Quit yappin’.

Three locations comprise the settings of The Salvation. Occasional riding scenes were shot against the tabled rocks of South Africa’s semi-arid grasslands. These scenes were rock stars of aesthetic beauty, the kind of endless wastes we associate with the West.

Black Creek was the setting of most of the first half. The town could not appear more generic. Black Creek has a general store, a bank, a saloon, a mayor, a sheriff, and other wooden, one-room squat shacks that represent a sad attempt at settling a barren land.

Black Creek cold be a child’s rendering of a western town after watching several westerns. That’s not an insult–it’s the point.

Contrast Black Creek to whatever abandoned town Delarue was holding up in. The town layout appears the same, in size and scope, but all of Delarue’s buildings are charred remains. the message is clear–Delarue will burn your town. Only the bank and barn remain unsullied. Perhaps the barn was built later to house the horses, but the bank was certainly saved on purpose.

The climax takes place in the charred town, a setting that must have been a blessing or a curse to The Salvation’s set designers. The wood appeared charred, but I imagine working on it must have proved a struggle.

Commentary (1/2)

The final shot of the movie shows viewers what this violence was all about. As Madelaine and Jensen ride off into the sun the camera pans back slowly to reveal the pumping arm of a wooden oil derrick. Then another, and another, until a forest of derricks blocks view of the town.

These derricks were unseen and unknown for the movie. Puddles of oil were often visible when Delarue mosied about his stronghold, but we were made to believe the town was a ghost.

And it was. The Salvation seems to make a claim that the Wild West was pretty wild, but oil killed it. Energy booms filled Texas with nearly 30 million people after a while. Denver was born from what came from the ground.

Black Creek nearly went up in flames because of oil, an oozing substance no one understood save Standard Atlantic. (That company’s name was a nice, sly touch.)

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

The Salvation is a straightforward tale of revenge on the Great Plains, but it has some problems.

Four women appear in this movie. That is hardly uncommon in westerns. One woman rats out Jensen to the sheriff. Did she know he murdered De La Rue’s brother? Can’t say. A second woman flees town because De La Rue murdered her husband. Sensible.

Jensen’s wife speaks, but only in Danish and only to Jensen. Madelaine does not speak because natives cut out her tongue.

Some of the few women in The Salvation literally have no voice. That Jensen’s wife knows no English makes sense, but did Eva Green’s character need to be a mute? What did the filmmakers mean by stripping from female characters their powers of speech?

I want to think these choices were made with no ill will in mind. I want to.


  • (1) The cinematographer, Jens Schlosser, blended silvers and blues into his palette. Full moons are prominent in key scenes. They’ve created a “West” meant to symbolize the real thing. These Danes aren’t going for realism, and they let us know it with their color and lighting choices.
  • During the climax, horses often run free throughout De La Rue’s burning compound. The horses added to the visual chaos of the scene.

Summary (31/68): 46%

The Salvation knows what it is–a revenge Western. You don’t get a lot of time to ponder the grandeur of the open plains or listen to sweeping orchestral scores.

Instead you get a guy wronged who rights it through murder. You get a woman wronged who rights it with murder. Rape and murder are the raisons d’être of the movie, and that’s all you need to know.