Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Heaven's catflap: "The Salvation"

When the Western broke free from the studio backlot and took up residence in Italy in the 1960s, it became known as the spaghetti Western: loopy, lavish, operatic. The Scandinavian production The Salvation might, then, qualify as a smörgåsbord Western: a term that covers the wide-ranging cast as much as it does the artfully arranged if finally unsatisfying genre cold cuts writer-director Kristian Levring sets before us. Levring's been in the wilderness since his Dogme item The King is Alive, back in 2000; the new film is a self-contained genre proposition intended to be circulated in international markets - and even before you or I saw it, it had succeeded in its aims, by becoming the first Zentropa production to be picked up for overseas distribution by Warner Bros.

You can see why the executives responded to it: Levring's film takes the backdrop of a Heaven's Gate, but puts up front the kind of brisk, 95-minute runaround the United Artists topbrass presumably wanted Michael Cimino to deliver back in the day. Migrant farmer Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) has barely welcomed his wife and child to the New World when they're snatched away, and dispatched, by leering ne'er-do-wells. Jon's quest for vengeance leads him to the frontier town of Black Creek, and the trail of ruthless capitalist (and celebrated Injun-slayer) Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but he soon finds himself hung out as a sacrificial lamb by the weak-willed pillars of this community: blustering mayor Jonathan Pryce and meek sheriff Douglas Henshall.

From the secondhand title down to the brothers who wind up missing an eye apiece, there's a strong Biblical influence, and Levring has indeed gone at this material like a scholar: self-conscious tracking shots through doorways seek to summon the spirit of John Ford, while the soundtrack's plangent guitar strums and twangs offers a pointed tip of the hat to Signor Morricone. Still, all of this fanboyism has been lacquered onto a scenario that first proves knottily intriguing, then rather too complicated for a 95-minute feature's good: a subplot about this community's oil supply only surfaces in the closing frames, having gone singularly underdeveloped in this edit, and too many of the characters are left to circle around with only rudimentary purpose.

It remains semi-watchable, in a "oh look, someone's done a Western" way, although after Age of Uprising and this, I'm coming to believe the pallid, placid Mikkelsen is better cast in colourful supporting parts, and Morgan makes a third- or fourth-choice villain. (It's possible people said similar things about Jack Elam and Lee van Cleef back in the day.) Their eventual duel in the sun is undermined by the fact The Salvation's most compelling presences are left muddling round on the sidelines, waiting mostly in vain for the opportunity to express themselves: Eric Cantona as the heavy who gives our hero respect for fighting against the Germans in the Danish-Prussian Wars before socking him in the gut, and Eva Green as a mute widow, working harder with those gigantic peepers than Levring did on the script.

The Salvation opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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