The Salvation (2014) is the sort of western you measure by the quality and length of its silences. I always find the more talking a western has in it, the less emphatic it is, and the more it strays from the genre. The western moves slow. It’s in a slow drawl, the wind, it’s in the remote homesteads and far-flung townships. Westerns are about the sort of people who drive cattle across the state and the people who go to the same saloons every night. Their lives crawl, the land crawls, and change happens slowly. What’s there to talk about when you’ve got all day to say it?
I really enjoyed it. Its Danish director (Kristian Levring) must have drawn from a certain Italian director who mastered the art of silence in westerns better than any other, and yeah, I know how great John Ford is, but maybe Americans don’t know how to do quiet. Maybe. I can’t remember. Part of me doing this is I get to refresh my memory of what westerns are again. Anyway, Mads Mikkelsen plays your good and proper stony hero, who immediately and brutally avenges the murder of his wife and son. It runs him afoul of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the movie’s menacing antagonist. Good good good. I’ve always wanted to see him in a western. Neither of them make a point of saying much. The movie lets the audience soak up its scenes to the chirping of crickets and a permanent rustling breeze. It doesn’t hurry through anything, but no moment is wasted. When action comes it is sharp and sudden, even when you expect it. Every bullet fired pounds across the soundscape. Each one rings in your ears. It is the silence before it that brings out that action and feeds the tension. When a storm finally breaks, it’s the lightning makes you jump from your seat.
Oh, and one more thing about silence. It’s strong. Perhaps the strongest character in this entire movie is neither Mads Mikkelsen nor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Perhaps it’s Eva Green, who never says a word, and is more stony and determined than the other two combined.
The rest of the movie is satisfactorily decent. It seems like the director chose to use the old technique of filming night scenes during the day and applying a dark gel filter across the lens to simulate night, then CGI’d in a moon to make it look real. Maybe he used some modern technique. Maybe it was the cameras themselves, because the daytime colours come out in spectacular form. It’s a bit disconcerting, but it also brings out a contrast which complements the tone of the movie. Westerns are all more or less about the stark struggle between good and evil at the most fundamental levels of human survival. Yeah nah tops.
So yeah, silence, tone, contrast. Those are some good words to think about when you’re watching a western. Unless you’re kind of aware of what you’re looking for, the good ones actually just seem pretty boring.