A modern western is a difficult challenge but some do succeed like Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, the Coen’s True Grit remake, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around it’s Danish director Kristian Levring’s chance to bring westerns to modern audiences, focusing on Mads Mikkelsen as Jon Jensen, whose family are murdered by a man who Jon then kills, not realising he was unleashing the fury of a notorious gang leader and when the townspeople betray him, he’s left to hunt down the outlaws himself. Also starring: Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall and Johnathan Pryce.
It isn’t long into the film before some of its problems become overly blatant, most notably the cinematography is extremely poor; it’s such a shame because using the open, natural landscapes is a huge opportunity for some beautiful shots, an opportunity that is completely squandered. When the film begins to descend into night, things get even worse as the film seems to either switch to black and white or as if someone has mistakenly tampered with the contrast and saturation, it’s cheap and highly ineffective. It’s a style that is too overtly trying to force a reaction from the audience which just simply isn’t there. The opening has problems with its story as well as visually, the events take place much too quickly and with little attempt made to create some form of sympathy for our lead before his family are taken from him, which makes his need for vengeance much less convincing. Not helped by Mikkelsen who struggles to give much convincing emotion; fairly suitable for a western, yes but not particularly enjoyable for 90 minutes straight with no variation.
After Jon enacts his initial revenge, we’re introduced to his adversary in the form of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Henry Delarue, now the rest of the film really depends on your reaction to his character; for some he may be a worthy villain and for others he may be unthreatening, for the former it will be much more entertaining. Then we meet Eva Green’s Madelaine, though she’s often referred to as Princess instead, but her role is severely limited given the writing choice to have her unable to talk, giving her one real moment to shine in the whole film and she doesn’t disappoint but she could have added a lot more which it sorely needed, given a better chance. After that you can guess where the story is going and how things will end up so it’s pretty much your standard western revenge plot.
There’s a lot of missed opportunity with this film, many of which would have vastly improved the final result and it’s extremely unfortunate they weren’t remedied before the film was finished. Mads Mikkelsen has gained fame over the years but he isn’t your classic actor, his range is fairly limited and it’s bland in this setting because he offers no relatability, sympathy nor does he feel particularly heroic, he’s not giving you a character to really get behind and root for. All said, basically the film offers very little originality, is visually poor and does not feature any outstanding acting, it’s one to watch so long as you’re looking for exactly what you’ve seen before.