Monday, May 27, 2024

Viggo Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt

There was no shortage of violence in the Old West, but there was also a lot of quiet loneliness. There are plenty of both in Viggo Mortensen’s new revisionist western, but the lonely moments are safer. No matter how revisionist it might be, revenge still needs to be taken in director-screenwriter-composer-co-star Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt, which opens this Friday in theaters.

The title has a spaghetti western ring to it, but the vibe is more
Heaven’s Gate. Just about every man Vivienne Le Coudy meets is an exploiter, except Holger Olsen. That is why she ran off with him so quickly. Unfortunately, we know it will end tragically, because the film starts with Olsen mourning Le Coudy at her death bed. The ensuing flashbacks explain why Olsen will be gunning for Weston Jeffries, the violently entitled son of wealthy Alfred Jeffries, who runs the nearest town with the brazenly corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller.

As a veteran in his native Denmark, Olsen believed he could enlist for the $100 bonus, fight for his new country, and return home after a relatively short time. Le Coudy is rightly skeptical, but she lets him go anyway. Unfortunately, that leaves her to fend for herself in the lawless town. Of course, the years drag by, until Olsen finally returns to meet Vincent, the son he never knew he “had.” Despite the circumstances, Olsen and the little boy quickly develop a rapport, so the soldier-turned-sheriff will always protect his son, even after the sins done to Le Coudy cause further physical decline and death.

Dead Don’t Hurt
is about as slow as a western can get and still be a western. It still has all the elements, particularly the striking landscape—mostly shot on-location in Durango, Mexico. Mortensen can definitely play the strong silent type, so he perfectly cast himself as Olsen. As usual, he slow-burns like nobody’s business.

Yet, Vicky Krieps is the true lead as Le Coudy. She brings a lot of strength and sensitivity to the part. Watching her work in
The Dead Don’t Hurt gives real sense of the dangers women faced on the frontier. However, it is worth remembering conditions for women weren’t much better in the Old World—and often they were worse. Ask the women of the shtetls about the Cossacks. Wherever you were, life in the late 19th Century was just brutish and short.

Mortensen generously but shrewdly shares a lot of screen-time with a top-notch supporting cast, including Danny Huston oozing sleaze as Mayor Schiller, Garrett Dillahunt steely and menacing as Old Man Jeffries, and Solly McLeod, who is shockingly unhinged and sadistic as his son, Weston. Viewers who only know McLeod as the amiable
Tom Jones and from the kitschy supernatural show The Rising will be pleasantly surprised to his range here.

The Dead Don’t Hurt
is an achingly earnest and carefully crafted film. Still, a little more giddy-up would not have undermined Mortensen’s aesthetic. It is a film viewers will respect, but not love. Recommended for admirers of epic revisionist frontier sagas, like Jan Troell’s The New Land duology, The Dead Don’t Hurt opens this Friday (5/31) in theaters, including the AMC Empire in New York.