The Dead Don’t Hurt  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Viggo Mortensen, US/Mexico/UK, 2023, 130 mins, in English plus Spanish/French with subtitles

Cast:  Viggo Mortensen, Vicki Krieps

Review by Carol Allen

Viggo Mortensen’s film, which he wrote and directed as well as playing the male lead, is both an unusual and rather contemporary take on the Western and ultimately a strong love story.  And the wildness of the Wild West is beautifully filmed, both scenically and dramatically

There is though one problem in that Mortensen for some reason has decided to film his story in a non-linear way without giving us any clear indication of where we are in the time line, which makes it somewhat difficult to follow.  So it begins at the end of the love story with the death of the main female character Vivienne (Vicki Krieps).  Her common law husband Hoder Olsen (Mortenson) and their young son (Atlas Green) bury her near their simple cabin home.   We then meet the villains of the piece – corrupt mayor, Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), his partner in unlawful doings, land baron, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), and Jeffries’s psychotic son, Weston (Solly McLeod), whom we first encounter initiating a murderous, drunken shoot out of local citizens –  the blame for which the mayor will ensure another, innocent man will pay for with his life .

Soon after we jump back in time to San Franciso a few years earlier, where Vivienne, now a much younger,  prettier and fiercely independent woman, working as a florist, is ditching her wealthy but boring fiancé (Colin Morgan).  She is barely recognisable as the woman whose corpse we have just seen and it is here and elsewhere that a simple caption – say “San Francisco, some years earlier”-  would have helped the audience. 

Down by the docks she meets Olsen, a rough hewn carpenter and military veteran  and their strong attraction is mutual.   They are both immigrants – he is Danish, she is French Canadian.  We also get insight into her childhood – her love of the Arthurian legend of gallant knights on chargers and the murder of her father by the British troops in Canada.  Vivienne throws her lot in with Olsen and goes back with him to his simple, indeed primitive shack in Nevada and does a pretty good job of adapting to her new life, transforming the barren earth around their home with trees, flowers and vegetables plus dealing with the often hostile local society in the nearby town. 

Mortensen absences himself from the middle section of the story, where Olsen goes off to fight in the civil war, somewhat unchivalrously leaving Vivienne to cope on her own, particularly with the unwanted attentions from the aforesaid psychotic shooter Weston, who is also her boss in the saloon where she works.   She copes but at a cost, which must be counted when Olsen returns from the war.  

Despite the challenges of the non-chronological telling of the story – hang on to the fact that there is only one child, who is seen at different ages –  this is a strong and satisfying dramatic tale, which above all pays tribute to the strength of women like Vivienne and their role as pioneers in the tough and challenging world of the emergent West.