Review – The Dead Don’t Hurt

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Overview

Synopsis A pair of immigrants form a loving relationship on the 1860s frontier amid the difficulties of the Civil War and small-town corruption.

Length 2 hours, 9 minutes

Release Date September 8, 2023 (TIFF), May 31, 2024 (US)

 

Rating R

Distribution Shout! Studios

Directing Viggo Mortensen

Writing Viggo Mortensen

Composition Viggo Mortensen

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Vicky Krieps, Danny Huston

The Western feels like a genre overdue for a resurgence but for whatever reason this hasn’t occurred. It has mostly been relegated to arthouse films like The Power of the Dog, and Killers of the Flower Moon, while respectable genre films like Walter Hill’s recent Dead for a Dollar are barely known. Yellowstone and Deadwood have audiences, but can’t seem to escape the small screen.

Despite the critical success of Tarantino’s and the Coen Brothers’ westerns and the Rockstar Games selling 63 million copies of Red Dead Redemption 2, modern westerns are box office poison. Kevin Costner’s two-part Horizon: An American Saga is tracking for a $12 million opening on a $100 million budget, due in part to the film being review bombed at the Cannes Film Festival. Add to that, Viggo Mortensen’s foray into the genre has grossed less than $1 million at the box office since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some bloody violence, characters being shot and killed, and an offscreen sexual assault.
Language/Crude Humor: Coarse language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink alcohol. Several characters operate a saloon.
Sexual Content: The film is a romance story that explores sexual assault and fatherhood. There is one scene featuring topless female nudity.
Spiritual Content: Several characters are implicitly Roman Catholic, but religion is not heavily discussed.
Other Negative Content: Some dark themes and content matter.
Positive Content: Themes of justice, love, and duty.

Review

The Dead Don’t Hurt hasn’t received much attention, but that isn’t surprising. It is a modest low-budget western-drama with limited promotion. What little enthusiasm it has received has come from fans of its lead actor, screenwriter, director, and composer, Viggo Mortensen. The acclaimed aging star of Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence, and Green Book made his directed debut with this film, but it otherwise hasn’t found notoriety.

That is a shame, as the film is interesting. It suffers from many flaws, including deliberate pacing and a dramatically convoluted and needlessly non-linear screenplay, but manages to deliver on character and aesthetics. And as a genre that thrives on those two things, it manages to hold its weight as a modest success.

Set in the 1860s in the Nevada territory, a young French immigrant woman, troubled by a poor romantic suitor, finds herself attracted to an older Danish immigrant who brings her back to his cabin. The two begin to find a relationship, that is interrupted by war, sexual violence, disease, and political corruption from the nearby town and its leaders. This leaves the aging immigrant, having become a sheriff in town, as a lost man with a terrible responsibility on his shoulders, a vengeance to seek, and an uncertain future.

The story is largely told out of order, set across the better part of a decade in a manner where the motivations and nature of the characters are obscured by a lack of context that is gradually revealed. The first four scenes of the movie include a woman’s death, a mass murder by a black-hat cowboy, an execution, and a quiet sheriff turning in his badge, evidently in protest of some unstated injustice. These scenes are likely trying to build intrigue, but without the context of these characters, they feel incomplete.

The film does manage to find itself in the romance between Viggo Mortensen’s Holger Olsen and Vicky Krieps’s Vivienne Le Coudy. Both are fascinating characters, with clear strengths and desires. Vivienne has a clear motivation to escape her world from the outset, and finds shelter with Olsen, even if his motivations are weak early in the story’s timeline. The film kicks off dramatically as the Civil War begins to eclipse the story, and tragedies beset the family that push it to its breaking point.

Its strong characterization goes a long way, even when the plot isn’t pulling its weight. Vivienne’s centrality to the narrative gives it the majority of its emotional weight and pushes the plot ahead more than the rest of the characters combined. As Variety notes, “Faced with the choice between a comfortable life in a golden cage and whatever Holger may have to offer, Vivienne decides to travel west with him, only to find that the home’s a dump and the town’s corrupt. How many partners have attached themselves to someone else’s dream, then had to adapt when it proves disappointing? Films rarely frame that experience from the woman’s perspective.”

Aesthetically, the movie is excellent. The Western genre is a genre of aesthetics and details, and this film captures immaculate landscapes and beautiful interiors every chance it gets. Even when the plot is weak, it never stops being visually gorgeous to look at. That goes a long way in a genre like this where half of the fun is the desire to put on a cowboy hat and soak in the heat.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is unlikely to be a modern classic, as its flaws are severe. It is confusing and hollow at important points and puts too much weight on its performances and aesthetics to remain above water. However, it is also a very comfortable movie, especially for fans of the Western genre who are already in love with the chaotic and changing world of the Old West. It is a messy movie filled with wonderful ideas, but your patience for it may vary.

Positives

+ Solid performances
+ Strong characterization
+ Amazing production design

Negatives

- Weak script
- Strange non-linear story structure
- Deliberate pacing

The Bottom Line

The Dead Don't Hurt is a messy western, but also a fascinating one filled with good ideas and moments of excellent dramatic storytelling and production design. It's worth a watch for fans of the western genre, as well as Viggo Mortensen fans!

 

7

Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

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