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Movie Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ FSalinks

Viggo Mortensen in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

Viggo Mortensen in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Credit: Marcel Zyskind.

Opening in theaters on May 31st is ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt,’ directed by Viggo Mortensen and starring Viggo Mortensen, Vicky Krieps, Danny Huston, Garret Dillahunt, and Solly McLeod.

Director Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps Talk ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’

Initial Thoughts

Viggo Mortensen’s second film as a director, writer, producer, and composer – not to mention, of course, actor – is about as far away from possible in time and place from his debut in those areas, 2020’s ‘Falling.’ But the themes of marginalization, brutality, intolerance, and the expression of violence remain the same, even as Mortensen transports them to the Old West. While this slow-moving and occasionally confusing film gets the period details right and creates a strong central female character, it takes a while to get to the heart of the story.

Story and Direction

Director Viggo Mortensen on the set of 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

Director Viggo Mortensen on the set of ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Credit: Marcela Nava.

‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ opens in the 1860s, near the small town of Elks Flat, Nevada, where we are introduced to Danish immigrant and local sheriff Holger Olsen (Viggo Mortensen) in the middle of a somber ceremony. Following a visit by Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), Olsen heads into town and promptly resigns as sheriff following a trial held in what passes for the local courthouse.

From this point on, the story flashes back to how Holger and a French-Canadian woman named Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) first meet – after arriving in San Francisco – fall in love, and eventually settle on Holger’s small parcel of land outside Elks Flat. But as the American Civil War breaks out, Holger makes a fateful decision: he heads out to fight for the Union and doesn’t return for several years. In the meantime, Vivienne is left to fend for herself, getting a job behind the bar at the local saloon, where she catches the attention of the vicious, sadistic Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod), son of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful landowner, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt).

What happens from there basically brings us full circle, as Holger eventually returns from the war to find things are drastically different on his homestead. Nevertheless, he and Vivienne manage to find a way to rekindle their relationship and thrive as a family before things take one more dark turn.

Solly McLeod and Viggo Mortensen in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

(L to R) Solly McLeod and Viggo Mortensen in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Credit: Marcel Zyskind.

As with ‘Falling,’ Mortensen stages all this in deliberately-paced fashion – almost too deliberate, as several scenes feature extended silences that skate on the thin edge between uncomfortable and gratuitous. The time-bending early part of the film is not handled well either – the first act’s confluence of events past and present, as well as the introduction of the major characters, is confusing and jarring at first. But when the narrative focuses on the relationship between Vivienne and Holger – and more specifically, Vivienne’s journey as she adapts to life on her own and allows Holger back into her life on her terms – ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ comes to life.

Vivienne proves herself to be an incredibly resourceful, resilient woman, allowing this to join an esteemed but short list of Westerns featuring female protagonists that stretches at first glance from ‘Johnny Guitar’ (1954) to ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ (2011). Although Holger has his own arc as well, this is Vivienne’s story all the way, and kudos to Mortensen for making a film in which the ostensible male lead must ultimately adapt his life around the woman’s choices.

If ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire, it’s because Mortensen chooses to unfold the story in a laconic fashion that matches the slow pace of life in Elks Flat. The languid passage of time may lend the film a lot of atmosphere, but doesn’t always reward the viewer’s patience. On a technical level, Mortensen does a fine job in expanding his visual palette on his second directorial outing, with an immersive, detailed setting and spacious, lovely cinematography by Marcel Zyskind.

The Cast

Vicky Krieps in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

Vicky Krieps in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Credit: Marcel Zyskind.

‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ is all about Vicky Krieps. The acclaimed French actor has never fully impressed us before in films like ‘Phantom Thread,’ ‘Old,’ and ‘Beckett,’ but she gives a truly impressive performance here. Although put through the wringer physically and emotionally, Vivienne never loses her humanity or sense of self, and her decision at one crucial point to remain on the homestead instead of fleeing is a brief, subtle, but powerful moment. Krieps underplays throughout, never resorting to showy melodramatics, while exuding a quiet, captivating strength that fuels the film’s second act.

A less generous writer-star-director might want his perceived share of the spotlight, but Viggo Mortensen is clear about who his main character is, and his Holger disappears from the film for much of its middle. Holger himself is humane and caring, and while his decision to go off to war may seem impractical and even selfish, it springs from a deep moral conviction. It’s that same moral grounding that leads him back to Vivienne and opens him to make a life with her where many less empathetic men might not even try. Mortensen is taciturn yet gentle in the role, and the actor’s natural warmth shines through as always.

The rest of the cast populates the town of Elks Flat with the usual assortment of recognizable character types, from a hard-bitten judge to Danny Huston’s duplicitous mayor, and Mortensen’s script gives everyone a brief moment or two to stand out. Only Solly McLeod’s Weston comes across as a pure, one-dimensional monster, making his character arc gratifying on the surface yet hollow.

Final Thoughts

Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps star in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

(L to R) Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps star in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Photo: Shout! Studios.

The best Westerns – from ‘The Searchers’ to ‘Unforgiven’ – live in a moral gray area, where the archetypes of good guys and bad guys are peeled away to reveal motivations that are more complex and ambivalent. ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ never quite gets there, thanks to the unredeemable nature of its antagonists, which renders the narrative spine of the movie somewhat stock. Yet the other half of the equation here – the emotional dynamic between the characters portrayed by Krieps and Mortensen, along with Krieps’ towering performance – manages to keep ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ compelling to the end even if one leaves the film somewhat unsatisfied.

‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ receives 6.5 out of 10 stars.


R2 hr 10 minMay 31st, 2024

Showtimes & Tickets

The Dead Don’t Hurt is a story of star-crossed lovers on the western U.S. frontier in the 1860s. Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) is a fiercely independent woman… Read the Plot

What is the plot of ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’?

Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) and Holger Olsen (Viggo Mortensen) begin a life together on a homestead outside the town of Elks Flat in 1860s Nevada, but a fateful decision by Holger leaves Vivienne alone to fend for herself against the insidious, corrupt men of the town.

Who is in the cast of ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’?

  • Viggo Mortensen as Holger Olsen
  • Vicky Krieps as Vivienne Le Coudy
  • Garret Dillahunt as Alfred Jeffries
  • Solly McLeod as Weston Jeffries
  • Danny Huston as Mayor Rudolph Schiller
  • Nadia Litz as Martha Gilkyson
Garret Dillahunt and Solly McLeod star in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'.

(L to R) Garret Dillahunt and Solly McLeod star in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’. Photo: Shout! Studios.

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