The Western is alive and well and living in Denmark! This European take on the western genre, a la the spaghetti westerns of yore, was finally released here a few weeks ago. The first review I read didn't sound that promising, but further critics managed to pique my curiosity, so off we went; however, like so many new and potentially more interesting releases than the latest Marvel bang-whizz, the film is no longer showing widely -- down to only one central London cinema -- and will probably disappear shortly from live showings. This is a great pity as the director Kristian Levring has displayed a finely-tuned understanding of the genre's conventions and has embodied these brilliantly in his protagonist Mads Mikkelsen's determined, set-in-stone features. His film may be somewhat derivative in its story-line, but it is a definitely cool addition to the ranks of great westerns.
Although it is an English-language movie, much of the opening section and occasional later scenes are in Danish. Mikkelsen and his brother have emigrated to America, veterans of the mid-19th Century wars; after seven years' hard slog he has finally sent for his wife and young son. His joy on seeing them again is short-lived, as the two ruffians who force their way onto their stagecoach are drunk, uncouth, and violent. After trying to molest his wife and grabbing the son with a knife to his throat, they throw him from the coach. Heartbroken, he plods through the barren countryside, finally finding first his son's corpse, then his wife's, and finally the stage's driver. Grabbing the latter's rifle, he happily kills the pair.
Reaching the homestead where he is joined by his brother, he buries his family and decides to sell up and move on. In town he is offered a desultory sum for the property from the mayor-cum-undertaker, Jonathan Pryce. In the meantime the brother of one of the two dead men rides into town, a charismatic turn from Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the embodiment of evil, and demands that the community deliver his brother's killer by sunset, blithely killing several of the townsfolk as an example of what will happen to them if his revenge is thwarted. The town seems to be populated by a bunch of cowards, straight out of "High Noon", so Pryce together with the weaselly minister-cum-sheriff Douglas Henshall finger our hero and arrest the brothers. Mikkelsen is handed over to Morgan and his gang (including his second-in-command Eric Cantona) for some gratuitous torture. Eventually rescued by his faithful brother the pair escape, but while our near-death hero recovers his strength, the baddies capture and kill his brother, leading to further resolves of revenge and retribution and the movie's blood-soaked denouement.
The second most interesting character in this melodrama is played by the French actress Eva Green, who has had a fascinating career in English-speaking films and who previously co-starred with Mikkelsen in "Casino Royale". Here she plays the widow of Morgan's brother after whom he has always lusted and whom he ravishes with great enthusiasm. Her backstory is that her tongue has been cut out by vengeful Indians, with her face still bearing the scars, and she is mute. However her acting is nothing less than brilliant as we understand her every emotion through her expressive eyes and her generous heaving bosom. When she tries to escape her situation on the next train, Morgan's men drag her back to their base and are given leave to do what they wish with her body before slitting her throat. I should mention at this stage that although Morgan looks every inch the black villain that he is portraying, I found his mumbly, low-pitched delivery hard to understand; he put me in mind of Benicio del Toro's character in "The Usual Suspects".
It helps that the film's cinematography is superb evoking the feel of the best westerns of the past. It was actually filmed in South Africa, but the American West of John Ford looms over the chosen locations and we can just about believe that Monument Valley is around the corner.