Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’

Viggo Mortensen Crafts A Somber, Violent Western Romance Led By A Fearless Vicky Krieps

It’s to Viggo Mortensen’s credit that The Dead Don’t Hurt, only his second feature film as director, doesn’t feel like a vanity project. There are none of the narrative excesses that often come when an actor makes the shift to filmmaking (Poolman, lookin’ at you!), as Mortensen crafts a somber, lean Western delivered in the classic American sense, but from the perspective of characters, one a strong, resilient female, who are new to this country.

Mortensen does practically everything here, working as director, writer, composer, and star in the role of Danish immigrant, military veteran, and rugged outdoorsman Holger Olsen. Set in the 1860s at the height of the American Civil War, Holger mostly keeps to himself as lawlessness grips a frontier town in San Francisco. The always-great Vicky Krieps plays the woman who would change all of that, Vivienne Le Coudy, a French-Canadian woman who values her independence and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. That’s unfortunate for the prickish rich dude she’s seeing, who gets left behind when Holger enters the picture.

The Dead Don’t Hurt follows traditional beats of the genre in the presentation of its characters. In this unruly town there’s the shady mayor, played by the always-shady Danny Huston. He turns a blind eye to the illegal machinations of Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), a wealthy land baron, and his psychotic son Weston (an impressive Solly McLeod) whose violence knows no bounds.  We can sense a showdown between the classic Western hero and the power-hungry outlaws, probably with a duel at high noon.

But this isn’t that movie. Mortensen’s approach to the Western is different so the concerns of his characters are different. Holger and Vivienne move in together at his rundown home, where he promises to build the garden of her dreams. They are soon to become parents, but it is a distinctly American thing, the Civil War, that separates them. In this, we see the vast difference between the two lovers. He feels a responsibility to fight for his new home country and defend the rights of the oppressed slaves. She has only just found happiness and peace with Holger and wants that to continue above all else.

Furthermore, Mortensen chooses to forego a straight-forward narrative for one that jumps around in time. We see the end of Vivienne and Holger’s relationship before we ever see them meet, which gives some of the revelations along the way added depth and sensitivity. We also get a glimpse inside the fantasy that plays in Vivienne’s head, in which she glorifies the heroism and sacrifice of Joan of Arc. Watch for a very familiar sword from Mortensen’s past during these sequences, too.

This is Vivienne’s story, and Krieps is absolutely the perfect actress for the role. Vivienne is such a fully-formed character, who projects this aura of strength and ferocity. But deep down inside, she is emotionally frail and just trying to survive in a place where violence is plentiful and compassion is rarer than gold. When that violence impacts her directly, she finds herself tested in ways that would break anyone else, but also drives home the impact of Holger’s absence.

Of course, there is a showdown of sorts, but Mortensen doesn’t have it play out the way we expect. The Dead Don’t Hurt is ultimately a love story, but a bittersweet one. The title is fitting, for all of these people are going through their every day carrying a pain that won’t go away until they’re in the ground.

The Dead Don’t Hurt opens in theaters on May 31st.


The Dead Don't Hurt
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-dead-dont-hurtIt's to Viggo Mortensen's credit that The Dead Don't Hurt, only his second feature film as director, doesn't feel like a vanity project. There are none of the narrative excesses that often come when an actor makes the shift to filmmaking (Poolman, lookin' at...