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Viggo Mortensen Brings a Nod to Middle-Earth in 'The Dead Don't Hurt'

By Sara Clements | Film | June 4, 2024 |

By Sara Clements | Film | June 4, 2024 |


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Middle-earth will always be with Viggo Mortensen. He makes that clear in the very first scene of his sophomore feature, The Dead Don’t Hurt: A knight, draped in the sun beaming through the trees, wields Aragorn’s sword, Andúril. It’s a very subtle, blink and you’ll miss it callout but it shows that a part of his heart still lives in the fantasy world. But despite this sequence, his latest written and directed work isn’t a fantasy about the Old West. In fact, it’s probably one of the most real depictions of it in many years. Also wearing the hats of star and composer, Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt follows the relationship between a city girl and a country boy, opting more to depict a romance than romanticize the American frontier.

The Dead Don’t Hurt opens with familiar images: The exterior of a saloon and the drawing of guns. It isn’t the Old West without gunfire. The town’s sheriff, Holger Olsen (Mortensen), is missing in action, however, as he’s just lost his wife, Vivienne (Vicky Krieps). Death permeates the film’s first frames. A husband and his young son bury a wife and mother, while six men get murdered in town. It’s a welcomed contrast of somber and violent, Mortensen making it apparent early on that this very much has the spirit of a Western but its focus is on something removed from outlaws and anarchy.

The focus is mainly on Vivienne, a French-Canadian immigrant selling flowers in San Francisco. To the detriment of Olsen’s backstory, an immigrant himself from Denmark, the film explores Vivienne’s childhood. Even in the early days of their relationship, and later when she moves in with him on his ranch in Nevada, we spend more time with her than him. It breaks with convention to focus a lot on its female protagonist, and Mortensen also refreshingly changes how women are depicted in the genre.

Olsen is introduced as a man of few words, giving up his lawman badge to follow a trail of revenge with his young son, but not until the film goes back in time to the blossoming relationship between him and Vivienne. Meeting at the bustling San Francisco pier, the connection between them is immediate. Both giddy together in these early moments, and then quickly feel like an old married couple. The film’s humorous side comes out upon their initial move-in together on Olsen’s secluded ranch, Vivienne describing it as a “bandit’s hideout” that smells like “dead mice”. Their rapport is quite funny to watch in the early days together, as he doesn’t care how he lives, to her frustration. But he quickly impresses her by planting flowers and trees. This honeymoon phase is sweet, and it’s pleasant to see how their relationship and the home they build together transform throughout the film.

The film takes a turn when Olsen enlists in the Union Army, and Vivienne is left to fend for herself in an unscrupulous environment controlled by the corrupt Mayor Schiller (Danny Huston) and his shady business partner, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), with a violent, wayward son, Weston (Solly McLeod). This section is absent of Olsen for a long stretch, but it’s where we begin to understand the knight imagery from the film’s introduction. This isn’t a story about a damsel waiting for her knight to return, but rather, how she has the strength to become the knight herself. She has a fighting spirit that is evident from a young age and only began to burn brighter when she was a child waiting for a father who never returned from war. Now, it seems that history is repeating itself, but she builds the strength needed to overcome a fear of abandonment, but also to survive in this unforgiven environment. She does succumb to the violence that many women did at this time, but it never diminishes her spirit. The biggest obstacle she must face is rebuilding her relationship with Olsen upon his return, while he does the same and also builds a relationship with his son born in his absence.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is the best Western in years, but it’s still not perfect. There’s a missed opportunity to craft a backstory for Olsen to make him more interesting than he really is. When Vivienne is no longer present, and it’s just Olsen learning to live without her, the film is less interesting - but it also seems that we are meant to feel the weight of that absence. There’s also drama in town between various characters that simply feels like unimportant filler to try to not lose the avid Western fans. It’s slow and patient, which may tire some viewers, but that more tranquil energy helps to make this a more thought-provoking affair. Mortenson isn’t out to make something unique in terms of its style, it’s shot simply to capture stunning landscapes in a natural, but detailed way. What he really cares about, more so than even his character, is Vivienne, something most Western directors wouldn’t think about. It’s the relationship at The Dead Don’t Hurt’s center that creates a more fulfilling viewing than most.