The western genre has been so pervasive throughout the entire history of the movies, and it is hard to imagine doing anything in it that hasn’t already been done. Viggo Mortensen, in writing, directing, producing and co-starring in only his second film behind the camera (after 2020’s Falling) finds a moving, if tragic, love story to play against the stunning landscape of the circa-1860s West, and somehow it all feels new. John Ford and Howard Hawks would love this movie.
The Dead Don’t Hurt is a title that promises something else, but without giving away spoilers, it ultimately feels right for this story of Holder Olsen (Mortensen), a Danish immigrant who falls hard for Vivienne Le Coudy (a luminous Vicky Krieps), who he meets in San Francisco. Wanting some quiet peace in his life, they move together to Elk Flats, Nevada, and start what appears to be an idyllic life together. That is, until the ex-soldier up and decides to join the Union Army to fight the Civil War.
The spotlight then shifts to Vivienne, who gets a job at the saloon and learns to make her way in what turns out to be an outlaw town run by the corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (a slippery Danny Huston), who is in cahoots with an equally corrupt major landowner, Alfred Jeffries (Garrett Dillahunt). Trouble arises when Jeffries’ no-good son, Weston (Solly McLeod), attempts to woo Vivienne, who wants no part of this bad boy. Things get dark from there as Weston shows his true colors and rapes her. She, however, is not a victim but a woman who gains some survival skills just to deal with these bad guys. When Holder finally returns after five long years, their relationship faces new challenges that threaten to tear them apart, and he might not be ready to deal with a life-changing discovery.
I had heard this described as a “feminist western,” but I can’t say that is the right description. Mortensen, with the immense help of his female lead, has made a truly moving love story about two people who don’t use many words to describe it but clearly are deeply in love just as life threatens the life they had planned together. The dead may not hurt, but for those still living, there can be a whole lot of hurt.
Mortensen has placed his story squarely in the western genre, but you really could lift it out and put it in many different settings and still have the same very human character study that stays with you long after credits roll. Luxembourg-born Krieps (Corsage) is so authentic in the lead role that she looks like she came from one of those faded old photos taken at the time. She is an almost chameleon-like actor who disappears into whatever role she plays, and it is no different here. Mortensen gives her the spotlight as he retreats from the middle of the picture, but his quiet strength is powerful to watch whenever he is onscreen.
Among the supporting cast that also includes such veterans as Huston, Ray McKinnon and W. Earl Brown, plus Colin Morgan and Atlas Green, it is McLeod who stands out just for his pure villainy. He might not reach the blood-curdling levels of Henry Fonda Welcome to Hard Times evil, but he is bad enough and makes us really hate him.
Production values are superb, with beautiful cinematography from Marcel Zyskind (who also shot Falling) making the most of the Durango, Mexico, locations where many a classic rode before. As if he already didn’t have enough to do, the multi-talented Mortensen also composed the fine musical score.
Producers with Mortensen are Regina Solorzano and Jeremy Thomas.
Title: The Dead Don’t Hurt
Festival: Toronto International Film Festival
Director-screenwriter: Viggo Mortensen
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Viggo Mortensen, Solly McLeod, Garrett Dillahunt, Danny Huston, Ray McKinnon, Colin Morgan, W. Earl Brown, Atlas Green
Running time: 2 hr 9 min
Sales: Hanway Films