The simplicity of an old-school western with one good loner facing down a relentless outlaw can fool you into thinking these films are easy to make. From classics such as “High Noon” and “Shane” to Sergio Leone’s bloody spaghetti westerns, they tend to be short on dialogue and long on mood, with death coming at the end of the day.
It’s only when you watch something like “The Salvation,” set on the American frontier circa 1871 and showcasing the formidable intensity of Mads Mikkelsen, that it becomes apparent how difficult it is to create that tension between good and evil on the high plains.
The fine Danish director Kristian Levring has the look and the love of the genre down. Long shots of a desolate, dry and unwelcoming land are there with all the grit and glory; director of photography Jens Schlosser is often right down in the dirt and mud that cake the boots. Production designer Jørgen Munk and costume designer Diana Cilliers have the period details right. The music by composer Kasper Winding swells as danger rises. The thunderclaps startle, the lightning flashes, the wind roars, the horses pound at all the right moments, with Al Sirkett designing the sound.
Written by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen, the movie has a few bursts of energy and invention — a cleverly executed jailbreak is one. But the story drifts and the pacing drags, failing to gather much steam until the final moments.
The filmmaker has said he’s been a fan of westerns since boyhood, and you can sense that reverence in every frame. But following the formula too closely proves “Salvation’s” undoing.
The idea is an interesting one, focusing on the immigrant experience in settling the West. As the film opens, Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are waiting for the train in some broken-down frontier town. After seven long years apart, his Danish wife and young son are coming from the old country to join him at his homestead, a day’s ride out of town.
The family is barely reunited before it is torn asunder. A couple of rowdy bruisers sharing their stagecoach set their sights on Jon’s wife, and all too soon Jon’s only reason for living is to kill the ones who killed his loved ones.
It’s a score quickly settled. But unknowingly he’s just started a feud. The main lowlife was the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the outlaw whose reign of terror holds the town in his grip. The killings have also angered the silent, scarred saloon prostitute Madelaine (Eva Green).
Hints about the coming oil rush and the greed of such big ventures are dropped here and there. Justice is scarce with money on the line, so the stage is set for brutality and blood.
Delarue is happy to oblige — killing a few innocent townspeople until Sheriff Mallick (Douglas Henshall) and his men deliver the culprit. The undertaker/mayor Keane (Jonathan Pryce) figures he’s in for some business. The sheriff is cowed by the outlaw. Good is hard to find.
Jon’s capture and torture in the middle of the town sets in motion yet another round of revenge when his brother Peter manages to rescue him. The requisite gun battle is one of the film’s better set pieces in large measure because it showcases the production and costume design.
Green, quite used to dealing with a gunslinger or the undead in the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” makes Madelaine into a mysterious stunner. That the actress has not one word of dialogue actually adds to the power of her presence in the film.
Meanwhile, the exchanges between Mikkelsen and Morgan in particular, both actors great at playing dark, brooding men with slow-burning fuses, are sooooo slooooow the fire doesn’t just go out, it never flares.
MPAA rating: R for violence throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes, English and Danish with English subtitles
Playing: Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles