Tuesday, June 18, 2024

“THE DEAD DON’T HURT”

THE STORY – On the western frontier of the U.S. in the 1860s, two pioneers fight for their love and their lives. After the Civil War breaks out, the man enlists as a Union soldier while the woman is left to fend for herself while dealing with volatile, sometimes aggressive fellow inhabitants of the small town.

THE CAST – Vicky Krieps, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Huston, Garret Dillahunt, Solly McLeod, Colin Morgan, Ray McKinnon, W. Earl Brown & Atlas Green

THE TEAM – Viggo Mortensen (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes


“The Dead Don’t Hurt” premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to fairly decent reviews and was mainly hailed as a step up from writer-director Viggo Mortenson’s directorial debut film, “Falling,” which received negative-to-mixed praise upon its release. “The Dead Don’t Hurt” has been billed as an old-fashioned western romance offering a uniquely “female-forward perspective.” Not only is Oscar nominee Mortensen the director, writer, co-producer, and star of the film, but he also composed the music. While the film features solid performances and direction, the end result is still mediocre at best, as the narrative’s structure is a mess and is riddled with cliches and plenty of tropes we’ve seen before despite Mortensen’s attempt to make what’s old feel new again.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” begins with a series of somber scenes showing the death of a major character, as well as the aftermath of that death, followed by the brutal hanging of an innocent man accused of committing several murders. Then, the story takes us back several years – right before the Civil War – when French-American Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) meets Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen) in San Francisco. They immediately begin a relationship, and she decides to go with him to a very rural area in Nevada so they can start a life together. It’s a quiet town, and while she initially has trouble adjusting, they both eventually settle in – but, soon after, the war breaks out and separates the lovers when Holger decides to fight for the Union. Vivienne is left alone and must deal with corrupt leaders like the mayor, Rudolph (Danny Huston), and his business partner/rancher, Alfred (Garret Dillahunt). In addition, Alfred’s son, Weston (Solly McLeod), adamantly pursues Vivienne, eventually leading to her assault by him. When Holger returns from war, they both must reconcile with the people they have become and what has transpired during his absence.

Supposedly, Mortensen did not intend to act in this movie, but when the initially cast actor for Holger had to leave the project, Krieps recommended Mortensen take on the role. His performance feels a bit wooden and muted at first, but then he has a couple of heartwarming moments later, allowing him to show off his proven dramatic chops. Holger is a man of few words; his Danish accent isn’t perfect, but he conveys a lot through his eyes and other subtle movements. As Mortensen is meant to be a co-lead with Krieps, it would’ve been interesting to see a bit of Holger’s experiences during the war. And yet, his description of it (and Mortensen’s delivery) not being what he “expected” says a great deal. Krieps, the critically acclaimed German actress best known for her breakout role in “Phantom Thread,” receives top billing here. It’s great to see her play such an independent, strong-minded character, even though it often feels like she’s not the center of [what is meant to be] her own story. Thanks to Krieps’ grounded, not overly acted performance, Vivienne is a relatable, easy-to-root-for type of character. It’s a shame, then, that Mortensen’s script treats the character so terribly – including a brutal, gratuitous assault and an aftermath that is not particularly well-handled considering everything that has been set up before.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” also features often reliable character actors like Danny Huston and Garret Dillahunt. It’s certainly good to see them on screen, but their scenes mainly detract from the central narrative of the romance between Vivienne and Holger. It’s unclear why Mortensen felt the need to include numerous business discussions between these men, especially since the film has touted itself as having a feminist (or feminist-adjacent) perspective. Sure, it’s enjoyable to watch Krieps’ Vivienne stand up for himself, get a job in town because she wants to, and do other things that men wouldn’t expect her to be able to do during this time period. Still, these moments almost seem to be there simply to receive support from feminist critics as almost a pat on the back. Solly McLeod’s Weston is the type of over-the-top villain you’d see in any old western; it’s a one-note character, to be sure, but McLeod fully commits to the despicable role, and you definitely feel his terrifying presence whenever he’s on screen.

While the individual scenes themselves are relatively slow-paced – which is not necessarily a bad thing – the frequent time-skipping is a constant distraction. There are also flashbacks within flashbacks that are confusing, mainly because it’s hard to know why they’re included in the first place. For example, we see a few flashbacks to Vivienne’s childhood at moments that might make sense for the character but not for the story. The varied pacing between these scenes makes it difficult to engage the viewer and it takes a good 30 minutes for the central romance between Vivienne and Holger to begin. Then, it’s thoroughly rushed to the point where Vivienne suddenly agrees to travel to live a life with a man she [seemingly] barely knows. Mortensen and Krieps have a nice, easygoing chemistry, so it would’ve been better to see more of their characters getting to know each other. Just when you’re accustomed to the slower pace, it suddenly speeds up, giving you whiplash as to what kind of a film Mortensen is trying to tell here. The film’s war section moves so rapidly that, one minute, Vivienne is saddened over Holger’s departure; not long after that, she’s pregnant, and then suddenly, her son is several years old. The rapidity of these scenes doesn’t allow the film time to breathe; at 129 minutes, Mortensen could’ve easily trimmed certain scenes with the side characters and replaced them with more time spent with Vivienne during Holger’s absence.

Mortensen’s script is riddled with genre cliches, which include a woman (Vivienne) whose original romantic partner doesn’t treat her well and of whom she is clearly not fond, a woman who’s unhappy with her partner (Holger) has decided to leave her to fight in a war, and a surprise child “revelation.” This reveal hardly comes as a shock, and it’s frustrating to see Mortensen resort to such hackneyed plot devices. The script also contains some seemingly anachronistic, distracting dialogue, such as the phrase “consolation prize.” However, the actors all deliver the lines believably enough that it’s easy to let such peculiarities slide.

Mortensen’s score is actually quite lush and pleasing to the ear, often featuring minimal strings and simple melodies. And yet, despite his best efforts – both in front of and behind the camera – and Krieps’ strong performance, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” fails to be the emotionally sweeping, epic Western romance it had most likely intended to be. It’s quite a slog at times, and it’s difficult to become invested in the characters and their situations due to the film’s structure. Even Holger’s eventual return after the war happens so quickly that it has minimal emotional impact despite Mortensen’s convincingly heartfelt performance. The intention and passion can be felt throughout, but for this to truly work, it needed far more refined execution.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Solid performances from both Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps. Filmmaking of the western landscapes is beautiful, and Mortensen's original score is lovingly simple.

THE BAD - Narrative is a mess, with plenty of cliches and genre tropes. Too much time-hopping and confusing flashbacks. The pacing goes back and forth, making it hard to stay invested.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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Alyssa Christian
Alyssa Christian
Longtime cinephile and self-described movie snob who’s probably too obsessed with awards season. Also an actor, writer, flutist, and vegan.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Solid performances from both Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps. Filmmaking of the western landscapes is beautiful, and Mortensen's original score is lovingly simple.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Narrative is a mess, with plenty of cliches and genre tropes. Too much time-hopping and confusing flashbacks. The pacing goes back and forth, making it hard to stay invested.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"THE DEAD DON'T HURT"