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The Dead Don’t Hurt

Part-love story, part-revenge thriller, part-feminist Western revision, Viggo Mortensen's sophomore feature (on the director's seat) shows scrappy ambition, and gets flanked by two stellar performances - in cinemas on Friday, June 7th

Once the sole preserve of massive Hollywood studios, the Western has found new life in the last 20 years through arthouse cinema. Everyone from John Hillcoat to Pedro Almodovar has offered their twist on The Old West, and it’s here that Viggo Mortensen chooses to tell his second story as a director, The Dead Don’t Hurt.

Vicky Krieps stars as Vivienne, a French-Canadian immigrant making her way in the American frontier in the 1860s. Repelled by her rich but pompous suitor (Colin Morgan), she falls for Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen), following him to his sparse and dirty ranch. Their contentment is disrupted when Olsen is compelled to fight in the American Civil War. Meaning Vivienne is left to fend for herself against the worst of the newly forming community nearby.

Part-love story, part-revenge thriller, part-feminist Western revision, Mortensen has a lot to say and chooses an unusual way to do it. The story is told out of sequence, with Vivienne’s death one of the first scenes in the film, before darting back and forth between an embittered Olsen, a young Vivienne, and the two characters’ courtship. Mortensen moved between timelines in his first directorial effort, 2020 drama Falling, but in a more sensible manner. There isn’t a compelling reason to tell the story this fractured way – in many aspects the film is a traditional Western, no matter the order. The format may confuse at first, although the filmmaker ensures it’s very clear which era we are in.

The most enjoyable moments are those with Krieps onscreen, and the Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) star is the key to making the film sing. A tower of strength raised on the stories of Joan of Arc, her perspective gives the film intelligence and depth. Her struggles in Olsen’s absence are the most affecting, but it’s also a joy to see her chemistry with Mortensen. The director/star plays Olsen as an endearingly flawed man, whose idea of romance is telling Vivienne “you are more handy with every passing day”, or covering her in the manure he’s using to plant her flowers. It’s a gritty kind of love, that feels all the more authentic for the lack of superfluous flourishes.

Outside of Krieps’ performance, the film is a traditional Western that seems to take some influence from the television show Deadwood, if only because three prominent cast members of that show appear in this movie. His West is a gruesome, violent, corrupt place, intended to provide stark contrast to Vivienne’s stoicism. It’s not subtle, but there are compelling performances, particularly from Danny Huston as the local town’s mayor, who pushes aside his morals to line his pockets. Garret Dillahunt is suitably despicable as a criminal looking to take over the town, while Solly McLeod is terrifying as his ruthless son Weston, introduced to us through a hail of bullets and blood.

Had the storytelling been more linear, The Dead Don’t Hurt would have been a more straightforward recommendation, embracing the best elements of the traditional Western while having something new to say. As it is, Mortensen’s sophomore outing as a director shows scrappy ambition, combined with two performances that raise the quality to the next level.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday, June 7th.

By Victoria Luxford - 04-06-2024

London-born Victoria Luxford has been a film critic and broadcaster since 2007, writing about cinema all over the world. Beginning with regional magazines and entertainment websites, she soon built up...

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