What happens when you apply the Dogme 95 aesthetic to the West? A film that is mercilessly committed to capturing, exploring and fleshing out that style from top to bottom. Moments of self-reference in genre films have become commonplace, but the director and writer co-exist Christian Levring not allowing parody moments to enter Safety, a pensive tale of revenge set in the 1870s American West. Genre determiner John Ford And Sergio Leon dripping from every frame and every classic yet revisionist sensibility. Based by one of Mads Mikkelsen‘S best show, Safety manages its brutal plot with gilded panoramas and ensures that Mikkelsen’s face is etched in enough blood and grit to make you flinch. While this entry into the Western canon doesn’t technically explore anything new, Levring brings an outsider’s perspective to the motifs of the genre, making this a watch no fan should miss.


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What is Dogme 95?

Image via IFC Films

Created in 1995, the Danish director pushes the limits Lars von Trier And Thomas Vinterberg (later join with Soren Kragh-Jacobsen And Safety Kristian Levring) authored the Dogme 95 movement. Presented with irony but crafted with legitimate intent, Dogme 95 and its Manifesto aim to preserve the independent art of cinema. The growing popularity of special effects over old-fashioned “pure” filmmaking has created discontent among these directors, who favor unfiltered portraits of reality. To quote the Manifesto, a set of rules directors vow to abide by, “My highest goal is to insist on the truth of my character and setting. I vow to do so by any means available and at the expense of any taste and any aesthetic considerations.” These rules (also called the Pledge of Chastity) include limiting camera movement to hand-held, using natural light and 35mm film, and not shooting genres.

Safety is as Western as a Westerner can get and loves every minute of it. His detailed production design and guitar-heavy score broke all the rules of Dogme 95. Levring even paid close attention to the clanking sound of boot spurs. But the heart of the Manifesto remains intact, because Safety‘S the extraction of narrative truths and character nuances is particularly violent. For Levring, create Safety is a “childhood dream come true.”

What Is ‘Safety’ About?

Mads Mikkelsen in Salvation (2014)
Image via IFC Films

Safety the atmosphere instantly transports viewers back to classic Western iconography. A brief montage opens the film: a blurry shot of a sunrise stretching across a flat, dusty landscape. Close-up of horses’ hooves as they drag a rickety carriage. Corpses dressed in 1800s clothing as they maneuver through the narrow train station. A man stands in the center of the frame with a dusty orange foreground stretched out in front of him complete with visible gusts of wind and an ominous overcast sky in the foreground. When the soundtrack’s sad guitar strum begins, it flashes a warning: this is the West, and it’s not a happy one.

This film is easily one of the prettiest Westerns in recent memory thanks to its cinematographers Jens Schlosser. They enjoy the big screen view, and the fictional small town of Black Creek evokes Monument Valley’s heyday. Meanwhile, the rural surroundings outside the city speak of nature’s undisturbed peace: tall grasses rustle in the breeze, and mountains scratch the distance. Even the stormy night was beautiful, with the rain creating white sparks on the black night.

But little is visible beneath that beautiful exterior. Just like John Ford at his subversive heights, Safety concerns itself with the struggle of the working class. Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are former soldiers who fought in the Second Schleswig War in 1864. The couple immigrated to America and spent seven lonely years in a foreign land building a safe harbor for Jon’s wife, Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and their son Christian (Toke Lars Bjarke). Within hours of the couple’s arrival, two thugs threw Jon from a moving stagecoach and savagely killed Marie and Kresten.

Devastated Jon kills the pair not knowing that the main assailant, Paul (Michael Raymond-James), is the brother of the corrupt landlord of Black Creek, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Delarue demands that the townspeople find the man who killed Paul. When local law enforcement failed to free Jon within two hours, Delarue murdered three residents in cold blood as incentive.

‘Salvation’ Reinvents Western Classics

Image via IFC Films

What follows is a classic revenge story through an “outsider” lens. Much as Sergio Leone interrogates the ideals of early Western romanticism by prioritizing sand and chaos, Levring’s interest is to draw humanity’s darkest impulses from each character like poison from a wound. Safety has very little gunplay action. Instead, it’s meditative in tone The good the bad and the ugly.

First, Jon is not a traditional Western hero or antihero. He is an immigrant who worked hard for seven years to serve the American Dream: to move to an affluent land, make an honest living, and live happily ever after. The residents of the American town of Black Creek are polite whenever Jon comes to town, especially Mayor Keane (Jonathan Price), which seems generous to a fault. But Keane secretly tricked the townspeople so that Delarue could mine the land for oil. And once Delarue threatens Black Creek, its inhabitants turn against Jon. He’s an outsider no matter how faithfully he plays by the rules, a theme that is best evidenced by Keane casually stealing boots off the feet of Jon and the town sheriff (Douglas Henshall) argues that sacrificing Jon for Delarue is worth it if it protects the city.

The American Dream is but a sheen covering sadism, selfishness, and fear, the emotional triplet that makes even the kindest-looking person shrug off all pretenses of acceptance. And that surface-level decency easily returns after Jon ditches the Delarue gang. The sheriff acts the way Jon’s actions made him Black Creek’s savior, for a foreigner deserves no personal dignity unless he is doing something useful for Americans.

‘Salvation’ Reflects Violence

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Salvation
Image via IFC Films

Safety say that war turns people into monsters, and that revenge is a series of domino cycles. But Levring was smart enough not to glorify violence even for fun. He wants to interrogate the trauma left by the violence. Jon’s vengeful massacre of Paul is akin to a bomb capturing innocent people. But it was Paul’s murder of Marie and Kresten that really set off the chain reaction. One could argue about the morality of fictional revenge all day long, but Paul would never be tried for that heinous act. Safety doesn’t forgive its protagonist, but he’s also the only one with a moral conscience. However, human emotions are complicated. At the same time Jon was burying his family, Madelaine (which is astounding Eva Green) buried her husband Paul, the unrepentant rapist and murderer. Jon mourns the two innocents while Madelaine mourns the worst of humanity.

Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Mads Mikkelsen Made for Westerners

Eva Green in Salvation
Image via IFC Films

Conveying these tangled emotions falls on a truly outstanding acting trio. Forget Hannibal Lecter. Jon’s eyes are very hard shards of ice. Mikkelsen is a master of micro acting, and his face and posture say it all: longing, tenderness, or unyielding anger. And Safety the cinematography certainly takes advantage of her noble features, soiling her cheekbones and capturing even the tiniest and most emotional eye movements. Mikkelsen won Best Actor at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for Huntand the performances here are equivalent tour de force.

One might argue Delarue is a mirror image of Jon, and the two characters do take different paths. But Jon’s real echo is Green’s protagonist, Madelaine. The character is physically unable to speak, but Green, like Mikkelsen, doesn’t need a word. Her anger is a bonfire burning through Jon’s arctic cold and directed not only at the man who killed her husband, but also the sister-in-law who wasted no time raping her now that Paul is out of the way. When Delarue tells Madelaine, an outsider by virtue of her sex, that Paul “never set you straight,” Green’s smug, mean grin is its own weapon.

Other actors might chew the scenery through characters as openly irredeemable as villain Delarue, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan carries a weight that crushes everyone around him like a black hole. A series of dialogues imply that Delarue was a good and kind man before experiencing violence. If Jon was trying to redeem himself after the war, then Delarue chose corruption. He is as bad as oil capturing and drowning local wildlife. Morgan’s hooded eyes hide neither anxiety nor regret. Just Delarue isand that presence causes collateral damage.

Different Cultures Can Make the Best Genre Films

Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation
Image via IFC Films

By the time the credits roll Safety, even the triumphant “ride into the sunset” ending has been punctured. Jon and Madelaine leave town together on horseback, but what kind of future awaits them after such suffering? They survived, but Delarue’s oil extraction continues. What is meant by salvation in a world like this? The only clear answer is that anyone who loves Westerns should spend two hours with a film that honors the genre with adoring faults, but does it through another cultural lens.

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