Greetings again from the darkness. It is initially a bit disorienting to settle in to watch a Western shot in South Africa by Danish filmmakers with a story based in 19th century America. However, any doubts are quickly forgotten thanks to terrific writing, powerful acting, and creative camera work set to a distinctive soundtrack.
Blood, dirt, politics, true loss and crackling gun play accompany what is, at its core, a story of vengeance … and of course, good vs evil. We open in 1871 America, seven years after Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) left Denmark after fighting in the war. Today is the day that Jon’s wife (singer Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke) arrive, and the separation has been tough on all. The reunion is destroyed in the most awful manner imaginable thanks to a couple of drunken ex-cons sharing the stagecoach. Of course, salvation and vengeance would not be required if there were no turning point, and Jon’s natural reaction is what sparks the real fireworks in the story.
One of the bad guys on the wagon is the brother of powerful local gangster Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). We quickly learn he is not a rational man and cares little for anything other than making money and gaining revenge on his brother’s killer. Delarue stands for all the bullies of any era, while Jon and his brother Pete represent the huddled masses incited to action only through gross injustice. There are many details and elements that set this above the traditional western, and one of those is the presence of Madelaine (Eva Green) who was married to Delarue’s murdered brother, and was previously disfigured and muted by Native Americans.
It’s impossible not to notice the similarities and influences of John Ford, Sergio Leone and the classic High Noon (cowardly townspeople, morals corrupted under duress). Director Kristian Levring even superimposes the very familiar vistas of Monument Valley into some shots, and it’s done so well that our eyes simply accept the landscape. Mr. Levring also presents us a uniquely lit stagecoach in the moonlight scene that was beautiful to look at, despite the violent nature of what was happening. Composer Kasper Winding (brother to director Nicolas Winding Refn) adds a distinctive guitar that recalls the haunting effects of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in America … a very effective complement.
The lead actors are superb and well cast – though Jeffrey Dean Morgan goes 180 degrees against type as the evil-to-the-bone Delarue. Eva Green speaks volumes with her fiery eyes, and Mikael Persbrandt (who was so great in In A Better World) adds to the quiet-wild feel of the film. The bulk of the action falls to Mads Mikkelsen, who thanks to Casino Royale, The Hunt, and TV’s “Hannibal” has become one of the finest actors working today. His facial tics and emotional depth convey much with few words, and his character’s expert marksmanship with a Remington rifle is a welcome shift from the spraying automatic weaponry too common in film these days.
The politics of taking advantage of the unaware weak runs throughout the films, especially with the methodical “land grab” occurring so that the rich can capitalize on the “sticky oil” spoiling the water wells. You may not be a fan of Westerns, but there is much going on in this excellent script – and the visuals combined with expert acting should allow you to appreciate what expert filmmaking this is (especially given the low budget).
watch the trailer: