If the 2014 taught us all just one lesson, I'd like it to be that Eva Green is an international treasure. It's one thing to be, allegedly, the one spot of pure bright light in the TV show Penny Dreadful (of which I have not seen a single episode), but quite another to survive two different Frank Miller-related comic adaptations with her dignity as a human and woman intact, particularly when both of those films demanded extensive, inconsequential nudity. Survive and, indeed, provide such vitality to the barren rocks of the script and the filmmaking and the whole rest of the cast that she manages to make 300: Rise of an Empire into a movie that I actually feel okay about recommending to people.

By no means is it as impressive to save a Danish art Western as to make 302 into something with any merits whatsoever; but here in The Salvation, what do you know, Green is once again the best thing about a movie that, frankly, doesn't have any right to be as much of a boondoggle as has turned out to be the case. And this while playing a character whose tongue was cut out, and so she is only able to use her flaming eyes and tensed-up shoulders to do all her work.

Certainly, the rest of the film isn't as dire as all that - if nothing else, Mads Mikkelsen is strong, though not unusually so, as the grim-faced hero - but if anything, the individually strong elements of the movie all feel like they should add up to something much more than the whole. The film is your basic tragic revenge job: one day in the 1870s Century, a Danish immigrant who has settled in the American West, Jon (Mikkelsen), along with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) eagerly await the arrival, after seven years, of Jon's wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and young son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke), left behind when the brothers fled Denmark after serving on the losing side of the Second Schleswig War. And all seems like it should be happy struggle to carve out a home in the New World, except that the family's stagecoach also boasts a pair of obviously bad ruffians, who spend a little time insinuating and making veiled threats, and finally pushing Jon out of the coach. He follows for miles, eventually stumbling upon his son's body, and thence to the camp where the goons have raped Marie to death. And so he kills them, mercilessly and angrily.

The wacky, almost farce-like twist, is that one of the men was the beloved brother of infamous gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and he's out for revenge himself. The deal he makes with the only nearby town, in the person of its craven mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce) is that the townsfolk will find the killer, or Delarue's men will leave a wave of blood and despair behind where the town once stood. And you can pretty much put things together from there. Oh, and Green plays Delarue's mute lover, Madelaine, though it's clear from the dissembling looks and barely sublimated anger that flashes across her face that the only thing she really loves is her own sense of security.

Adherence to broadly familiar plots is no sin for a Western, one of the genres historically best suited to stories of conscious self-mythology; and while I think that The Salvation in its gutturally violent way, would like to think of itself as a contrast to the moral simplicity of the classic Hollywood Western, it's really only substituting one kind of myth for another. And not, let's be honest, a terribly new myth: the film's tone suggests that it thinks of itself as being in some way shocking or subversive, but the hyper-violent nihilistic Western has been with us long enough to serve as a clichΓ© in its own right. The Salvation, which is clearly taking its marching orders from Sergio Leone's filmography in everything from the way the violence is staged to the slightly yellowed color timing, comes to us a full fifty years after A Fistful of Dollars exploded itself over the world, and it doesn't really see fit to add much of anything to that model.

Within this entirely classical framework, parts of The Salvation work amazingly well: director Kristian Levring (one of the Dogme 95 filmmakers from back in the day, though nothing about this resembles the Dogme aesthetic even superficially) and cinematographer Jens Schlosser build some awfully fine gloriously iconic images for us to gawk at, not romanticising the landscape (which is played here by South Africa, incidentally), but treating it as both grand and dauntingly empty and cruel. And there are, throughout, moments of incredible potency: Jon cradling his son's dead body by the hard silver light of the moon, the use of accusatory close-ups and dusty lighting during the town's first encounter with Delarue. The film's colors are harshly digital and almost metallic, and his gives every single frame of The Salvation a kind of vividness that's not realistic, and not exactly "beautiful", though it's surely very piercing and memorable, giving a sharp, unforgiving tinge to the images that feels exactly right.

And yet the thing doesn't cohere. Partially because it is, at the end of the day, just one more damn film where a husband turns into a zoned-out killing machine because his family dies, and partially because Levring and his co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, are really eager to keep ladling on the depravities, the wide range of characters who are no damn good, the overall sense of hopelessness and agony and violence as a way of life. You need to temper that somewhat if it's not going to feel just egregious, and that hasn't been done here at all. But even that's not as distressing as the lack of insight or discovery: the film is dolorously pleased to inform us that some people are just awful, awful, and they can turn good people awful in their wake, and let's run through the 2500th variation of Walking Tall and Death Wish to demonstrate that fact. It's a nice, fleet 89 minutes, so at least its overfamiliarity doesn't leave it boring, but if I'm going to watch this much suffering for this long, I still want to have some sense that I learned something after all that. All I learned from The Salvation is that the Danes are about 40 years behind the revisionist Western curve.