Dead Don't Hurt movie poster
"The Dead Don't Hurt" is playing in theaters.

Film Review | “The Dead Don’t Hurt”

Vivienne Le Coudy was born and raised in France, but is living in San Francisco during the U.S. Civil War in Viggo Mortensen’s latest film, “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” Played by the versatile Vicki Krieps, Vivienne was somewhat of a loner as a child. She used her vivid imagination to picture herself rescued by handsome knights in a forest populated by fairies who would grant her wishes. When her father went away to war, Vivienne and her mother learned to fend for themselves.

This independent streak has followed her to the United States, as we find our protagonist in a particularly dissatisfying relationship with a society man who desires no more than eye candy from his female companion. Desiring much more from a potential mate, Vivienne falls for a rustic cowboy named Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant who is also fluent in French. He’s a cowboy, but this man of few words is also well-read, and spends what little free time he has either reading or writing. He’s played by Mortensen himself, who also wrote the original screenplay.

And while a Western might seem an odd choice for Mortensen – Remember his New York thug character in “Green Book?” – he succeeds here, in part because “The Dead Don’t Hurt” is no ordinary Western. There are no barroom brawls, no cattle drives, no shootouts, and no brothels (also one is insinuated). No, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” is more of a revisionist Western, along the lines of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” It’s more of a character study than a traditional plot-driven Western.

Vivienne accompanies Holger to his small-town home somewhere in the mountainous desert of California. But no sooner do they begin to build a life together, Holger leaves to volunteer with the Union Army. But Vivienne is a strong woman, and she takes a job as a bartender at the town watering hole. In Holger’s absence, Vivienne is taken advantage of by local troublemaker Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod). In the film’s only misstep, Weston would appear to be “bad” for no other reason than the screenplay simply needs him to be “bad” – much as Tom Hardy’s character was unexplained evil in “The Revenant.” Unfortunately, Weston’s father is the mayor, so he gets away with a lot.

I’m typically not a fan of the overuse of flashbacks (and flash-forwards), when a story could just as easily be told in a linear fashion. However, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” excels, in large part, because of this technique. Mortensen’s screenplay moves seamlessly among the present-day action to scenes of Vivienne’s childhood in France to scenes of her death of syphilis when her son is approximately five or six years old. I’m not sure why we need to know that Vivienne would meet her fate early in life, other than it softens the blow of learning this at the end of the film.

As Vivienne, Krieps offers up her best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film “Phantom Thread.” Here, she solidifies herself as one of our great young actresses. And she’s not beautiful in the classical sense. She reminds me of a young Meryl Streep, in that her career is successful due to her talent alone – not because she’s the latest pin-up girl.

Mortensen plays Holger in a much more subdued fashion than we’re used to with his characters. When soft-spoken Holger speaks, people pay attention, precisely because he’s not given to blabber. When he has something to say, it’s important. This is an excellent performance by Mortensen, almost because it’s so out of character for him.

Mortensen is 65 years old; Clint Eastwood was 62 when he made “Unforgiven.” The comparison is interesting because these two films are so divergent. While “Unforgiven” is a “classic” Western, offering very few surprises, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” is something out of left field. While perhaps not as striking as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” it is refreshing to see a Western told in a different way. Given the deliberate pacing and low-key performances (save for that of McLeod), I don’t expect “The Dead Don’t Hurt” to be a big hit at the cineplex. But this one is certainly worthy of our attention. Don’t let this little gem fly under the radar.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” is now playing in theaters across Central Indiana. View showtimes and buy tickets here.

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