“The Salvation”

I’ve read several reviews of this new Euro- (actually Danish) Western that call for a response. One local newsprint reviewer lamented the fact that the characters were stereotypes. This might be a problem if we were watching a “straight” drama about, say, the breakup of a marriage, or the onset of senile dementia. It doesn’t apply in the case of “The Salvation” because “The Salvation” is a Western. Westerns, indeed all genre films play by their own rules and come with ready-made casts of characters. Thus, if you say that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Col. Delarue is a stereotyped bad man, you are saying nothing. All bad men in westerns are stereotypes. They are the villains of the piece. They wear the black hats. What differentiates Morgan’s Delarue from Ralph Ince’s Poe Northrup or Ian MacDonald’s Frank Miller? They all exist in terms of plot to give the hero a obstacle that he must overcome. Where they differ is in their motivating force which varies from film to film. Thus Ince’s Northrup wants to control the town of Tombstone. MacDonald’s Miller wants to kill Marshal Will Kane for sending him to prison. Morgan’s Delarue actually has two motivations. His initial motivation is to avenge the murder of his equally villainous brother. His long-term motivation is to terrorize local communities into selling their oil-rich land at rock-bottom prices to the big syndicate that employs him. Stereotypes in genre films are like stock-images in poetry. They are, or should be, universally-accepted narrative shortcuts. Rather than opening the film in the offices of some Eastern syndicate, discussing the oil-rich lands they covet, strategizing, deciding to hire one Col. Delarue, a renowned but ruthless Indian-fighter to “convince” existing settlements to pack up and move on (a strategy employed by Cecil B. De Mille on his film “Union Pacific”) director Kristian Levring introduces us to Delarue at the high point of his character arc–his brother has been killed, he wants the person responsible or he will hold the entire town accountable. (Little do the townspeople, or the audience, know that his orders from back East already call for their destruction as a community.)

What matters isn’t whether or not the characters are stereotypes–it’s how they are deployed. As a Dane, doing a film about the American West, as it existed in the 1870s, Levering packs all the anxieties implicit in being strangers in a strange land into a nightmarish nighttime stagecoach ride in which the hero, and his newly-arrived wife and son share their coach with Delarue’s just-paroled brother and a sidekick. As the two men drink, the atmosphere becomes increasing threatening. Nanna Oland Fabricus and Toke Lars Bjorke do a magnificent job of conveying their growing unease, then fear, as they realize that their journey is going to end very badly. Yet they too are stereotypes–tenderfoots lost in a landscape that allows for neither miscalculations nor mercy. They are kin to Johnny Depp’s William Blake who takes a very spooky train ride at the opening of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man.” Jonathan Pryce’s cowardly but greedy undertaker/mayor, secretly in league with Delarue, and Douglas Hershall’s hypocritical minister/sheriff also have their established roots–the one as a representative of the small-town grotesques who populate films as diverse as “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “Welcome to Hard Times,” the other as an embodiment of bent law as seen in innumerable westerns.

Criticism has also been leveled at Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen for bringing oil and land-grabbing into the plot. Land-grabbing has been a honored part of the Western mythos since William S. Hart made “Tumbleweeds” in 1925, perhaps even before that. As for the oil, the greed for oil-rich lands is no stranger to the Western either. Perhaps they could have done with a few less derricks in the final shot–two or three would have been fine, but they show so many that even the dumbest settler ought to have figured out why Delarue was so intent upon giving them the bums rush.

“The Salvation” may not be a Western-for-the-Ages, but as Freddy Sykes once said, “It’ll do.”

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