Let me see if I’ve got this straight – this is a Western movie (that most American of art forms) directed and written by Danes, featuring a European cast and filmed using South African locations to sub for the American West.
Since I have been watching westerns since I was knee high to a hitching post I can assure you that Danish born director Kristian Levring (who co-wrote the script with fellow Dane Anders Thomas Jensen) leaves no cliche unturned.
There is a small western town (apparently constructed from scratch somewhere outside Johannesburg) with a saloon and a jail; a stagecoach, a bad guy (naturally he wears a black hat) and vultures circling overhead over what is presumably a dying man. (There are no “Indians” although there is a reference to a particularly savage bunch which involves the woman depicted by French born actress Eva Green.)
The sole American in a lead role, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, overacts shamelessly. He is the bad guy ( a character named Colonel Delarue) after all.
The plot is yer basic revenge drama. The good guy, Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelson) emigrated from Denmark with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrand). Jon’s Danish wife and son are killed on their first night in America by a couple of cowpokes (one appears to be drunk, the other is just plain ornery) so Jon kills them in revenge. Uh oh! One of the slain cowboys is the bad guy’s brother Now he is looking for revenge (and kills a few townsfolk just to show he means business.) Along the way Jon runs afoul of the sheriff (Scottish born actor Douglas Henshall).
Mr. Mikkelson is apparently a big deal overseas but he is best known on this side of the pond as the villain in a James Bond film and/or playing a certain doctor in the cult TV hit Hannibal. Considering that he has a face made for onscreen villainy (probably one reason he was cast as the sadistic Le Chiffre in the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale) he plays the good guy very convincingly.(Yes, Lars Mikkelson is Mads’ brother. He was originally considered for this film – he plays Russian leader Victor Petrov on TV’s House of Cards, among other roles.)
Cinematography by Jens Schlosser is meant to be breathtaking, instead it is simply distracting. And the extreme close-ups and other camera tricks are right out of the Sergio Leone playbook.
The best viewpoint to take when viewing this film is to regard it as a homage to traditional American westerns. Otherwise, you should really be looking around for vintage Randolph Scott westerns. And if you don’t know who Randolph Scott is, you should skip this film altogether.
With all of its perceived flaws, this European western is still better than anything America has managed to pump out in recent years i.e.The Gundown, The Legend of Hell’s Gate, Last Rites of Ransom Pride.