Revenge can sour the sane mind, blinding a normally nice person to reason. Such a dark mindset befalls two characters this week—the young member of a Maori tribe in The Dead Lands and the grizzled Danish war vet in The Salvation—and as a result we get a pair of beautifully bloody morality plays.
The Dead Lands was New Zealand’s entry for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, but missed being nominated. In it, the male members of a primitive Maori tribe get slaughtered by a rival tribe’s youths. The lone male survivor, a teen (James Rolleston, 2010’s Boy), then sets out to avenge his brethren, traveling into the dreaded title lands to find a feared warrior to help him in his quest.
It’s the more violent film of the two (which is saying something), with the various warriors utilizing paddles and wicked looking knives to slice throats or gut enemies or decapitate tribal chieftains. But it’s also the more fascinating one, with director Toa Fraser showing us the ritual preening and posturing that precedes a fight, and then imbuing the fights themselves with visceral energy.
Also helping in that regard are some strong and interesting characterizations, including Te Kohe Tuhaka as the overly cocky young ringleader of the rival-tribe youths, and, most especially, Kiwi vet Lawrence Makoare. He cuts a fierce figure as said feared warrior, displaying some truly convincing physicality, and also conveying the mysterious man’s immense, deeply buried shame.
Speaking of physicality, I never thought I’d buy Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal) as a cowboy type. He goes ahead and proves me wrong playing a Danish settler in 1870s America who kills the men who kill his newly arrived wife and son, then discovers they belonged to a notorious gang with a ruthless leader (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who wants Mikkelsen to pay.
Where the recent Slow West was an offbeat and lyrical thing, this one’s an homage to spaghetti westerns—and other classic westerns—from the simple premise and bounty of bloody gunfights, to the Ennio Morricone-like music and a main character who speaks few words. And Danish director Kristian Levring (The King is Alive) fills it with beautiful, sprawling-old-west imagery.
As good and grizzled as Mikkelsen is, the more memorable portrayals here belong to Eva Green, as Morgan’s widowed sister-in-law—impressive alone for the fact she never utters a word—and Morgan. Morgan is especially, and wonderfully, nasty, fashioning a truly despicable human being whose inevitable demise is nothing less than satisfying. – [DVD]
The Dead Lands: Action, Rated R
The Salvation: Drama/Western, Rated R
DVD Release Date: 8/4/15