Categories: Film Reviews

‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ Review: Vicky Krieps Rides High in Viggo Mortensen’s Slow, Sparse Western

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The Western is a tricky genre to fully define. Whereas horror movies have to have scares and musicals have to have songs, it’s not always clear what makes a Western a Western, besides the titular location. But besides a predilection for horses and mountainous vistas, films of the genre also seem to share a common mood that’s not entirely easy to describe. In classic Westerns, it’s something resembling melancholy and a tentative wistfulness for a brutal bygone era, like a grandfather recounting war stories. The Dead Don’t Hurt, written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, certainly has this energy in every frame. And while its atmosphere is certainly appropriate and all-encompassing for the romantic yet unsparing tale it tells, it leans too much on the hitching post of tone at the expense of fully fleshed-out characters and a compelling story.

The Dead Don’t Hurt follows an unlikely pair, both soft-spoken and gentle in a world that doesn’t value either quality. Mortensen plays Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant living a quiet life at his homestead in Nevada. Through a chance meeting, he strikes up a romantic relationship with Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps). But their peaceful life together is interrupted by the Civil War, in which Holger is compelled to fight on the Union side. He leaves Vivienne behind to fend for herself in a new environment. The town in which she resides is especially intimidating thanks to a corrupt mayor (Danny Huston) and his uncaring business partner Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). The latter man’s son Weston (Solly McLeod) is short-tempered and nasty, and he makes life difficult for Vivienne as he relentlessly pursues her, much to her consternation. All alone in a world ruled by despicable men, Vivienne must fend for herself and steadfastly keep the home fire burning while Holger is away.

Ever since her English-language breakout in Phantom Thread, Krieps has become the kind of actress who automatically excites film lovers with her mere presence, even when the project is far beneath her abilities. The Dead Don’t Hurt gives her a role worthy of her talents, fully centering her as the driving force of the narrative. In fact, the film’s best section is its second act, centering entirely around Vivienne while she’s left alone without Holger. Through hardships, setbacks, and toil, Vivienne is resolute in her independence and never crumbles under the pressure of her situation. Krieps emphasizes the character’s dignity and inherent goodness, not letting her emotions betray her by revealing her inner turmoil, regardless of the situation. In fact, one of the few moments where she allows her feelings to spill out is one of the best scenes in the film, as she confronts Holger when he makes his fateful decision to set out for the war. Here, the hurt that she hides behind her eyes is fully exposed, and her previous shows of restraint make this moment even more impactful by comparison. However, when other characters enter into Vivienne’s scenes, the film suffers. Mortensen is particularly stiff, relying on his natural grit to give depth to his character, which just makes him seem off-puttingly impenetrable. And although McLeod fully commits to the uncompromisingly cruel nature of his character, the screenplay lets the actor down by drawing his character so thinly, leaving little for McLeod to do but lean into his flatly villainous qualities.

The world that Mortensen crafts for his characters to move through is well-realized, thanks to smartly understated production and costume designs that don’t distract from the story being told but instead accentuate the modest setting. This is a time of necessity over luxury and practicality over pleasure, and this narrow-focused perspective shared by the characters makes the cruelties carried out feel especially shocking. Even the score – also composed by Mortensen – underlines this intentional simplicity, with a sparse cello-heavy sound. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography is the film’s one element that’s allowed to be anything close to ostentatious, making effective use of lighting to emphasize the themes and perspective of the story. One shot in particular does more to tell the audience how a character feels than any line of dialogue: after a violent encounter with Weston, Vivienne is shown from above lying on top of her bedsheets, her face a bloody mess. Her body is half in shadow, as if to say her life now has a dark cloud over it that cannot be escaped. It’s a stunning moment, viewed from an objective God’s eye vantage point.

But despite its handsome trappings, The Dead Don’t Hurt is weighed down by its screenplay which is somehow both languid and occasionally confusing. Several brief yet unannounced time jumps (both forward and backward) jumble the narrative, with seemingly little purpose. Some of these leaps through time are clearly meant to emphasize the idea that life for these characters can move quicker than they may even realize, but they mostly just leave viewers feeling destabilized. But at least these jarring shifts in the time-space continuum give the film a jolt of energy. Otherwise, its slow tempo and long scenes with little change of pace makes every one of The Dead Don’t Hurt’s 129 minutes feel like an eternity.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is at its best when focusing on the bright spots that shine in the face of the cynical world it portrays, namely Vicky Krieps’s performance as the sympathetic Vivienne. But too much of the film leans into the deliberate, stolid nature of the setting in a way that’s simply disengaging.

Grade: C

Shout Studios will release The Dead Don’t Hurt in theaters on May 31, 2024.

Cody Dericks

Cody Dericks has been obsessed with movies and awards ever since he first grabbed a giant coffee table book about the Oscars at the Scholastic Book Fair. He’s been consuming every type of film ever since. In addition, he’s an avid theatre lover and always has thoughts and opinions on all things to do with Broadway and the Tony Awards. He currently resides in Chicago and is a proud member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. He also writes and podcasts for Next Best Picture and co-hosts his own podcast “Halloweeners: A Horror Movie Podcast.” You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd @codymonster91

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