Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fresh Frontiers

FOLIO Weekly
August 26, 2015

Except for oldsters like Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Robert Duvall, it seems that no Hollywood filmmaker today gives a flip about making Westerns anymore. Then again, I suspect most moviegoers younger than 50 don’t give much of a flip about seeing such movies, either. It’s a vicious circle.

Thank goodness for the Europeans. They still seem just as enchanted with the classic American movie Westerns as ever, and two new movies making their debut on home video are proof that the Western genre is in good, even if foreign, hands.

Despite the horrible title, Slow West (2015) has just about everything a Western fan should like – striking scenery, interesting characters, and lots of action. Written and directed by Scotsman John Maclean (his first feature film), the plot details the search across the Western frontier of teenage Scottish boy Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee from The Road) for his girlfriend. In short order, we learn she and her father are the subject of a substantial bounty, the cause of which lies back in the Highlands across the ocean. The details emerge in flashbacks.

Befriending the boy is bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) with decidedly ulterior motives. Their paths soon intersect with those of a variety of other searchers, all eager to claim the reward for the fugitives – dead or alive. The final shootout is spectacular, with some very surprising results.

Clocked at a running time of 84 minutes, Slow West moves almost too quickly, sacrificing character development to plot and action. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives. This is the kind of movie the four Hollywood icons I mentioned might have made as younger filmmakers.

Even better is The Salvation (2014), a Danish/UK/South African co-venture that offers a new perspective on the familiar Western trope of blood and vengeance. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Valhalla Rising) plays Jon Jensen, a Danish war veteran who’s immigrated to the American West with his brother in the 1870s. The film opens with the two men welcoming Jon’s wife and son from abroad after a seven-year separation.

The happy reunion quickly turns tragic, however, during a stagecoach ride, when the immigrants are brutally assaulted by ruthless scumbags, setting into motion the inevitable turn to vengeance. The plot may be little more than a variant on classics like Stagecoach and Unforgiven, but Danish director and co-writer Kristian Levring fashions a truly memorable and bloody valentine to the iconic Hollywood genre.

Visually reminiscent of the works of both Sergio Leone and John Ford, The Salvation convincingly transforms the plains, mountains, and deserts of South Africa into the hinterlands of the American frontier. And the conflicts are as timeless as the landscape. An outsider (the extraordinary Mikkelsen) saves a town and its subservient inhabitants (think The Magnificent Seven minus Six) from a vicious ex-cavalryman Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his henchman, but only after having exacted terrible punishment himself (think Unforgiven, A Fistful of Dollars, and One-Eyed Jacks to name a few).

The superb supporting cast includes Eva Green as a freed Indian captive whose tongue was cut out (rendering the talented actress mute without diminishing her impact in the film) and Jonathan Pryce as the crooked town mayor. The other actors, especially Danish actor Mikael Persbrandt as Jon’s brother, are also impressive.

Magnificent in both sweep and detail, The Salvation should not be overlooked by anyone who claims to be a Western fan. Given a look-see, even viewers unused to the genre might well be converted, as the title suggests.

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