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“The Dead Don’t Hurt” Burns with Slow Grace

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 9th, 2023

Vicki Krieps in THE DEAD DON’T HURT. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The Dead Don’t Hurt (Viggo Mortensen, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.

Written and directed by its star, Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), The Dead Don’t Hurt is a gorgeous slow-burn of a romantic Western, its gentle pace belying the roiling emotional drama. Great performances by Mortensen and the other star, Vicky Krieps (Bergman Island)—along with those by everyone else—enliven this sweeping saga of love and loss in mid-19th-century North America. Creative flourishes along the way also help give the film its own unique flair. It may suffer from some overinfatuation with its own languid grandeur, but is otherwise a powerful cinematic effort.

At the very start, Krieps’ Québecoise, Vivienne Le Coudy dies. So, we get that out of the way. Much of the rest of the movie is, understandably, told in flashback, though we sometimes intercut the history of the past with the ongoing present, since Mortensen’s Danish-born settler, Holger Olsen, is still very much with us, his young son by his side. Little by little, we learn how we got here.

Viggo Mortensen at TIFF23, presenting THE DEAD DON’T HURT. Photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

But first, there is a massacre that both sets the plot in motion and is the logical outcome of previous events. Six men are killed by a raging outlaw, drunk but deadly accurate with a gun. The easy villain of this prologue, Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod, I Feel Fine), may be a killer yet is by far not the only nefarious character in the film. He’s merely the face of the corruption in this once-pristine land; others form the body.

The narrative, unfolding in elliptical fits and starts, follows young Vivienne, whose father is hung by the British in the Canadian wilderness, from childhood to uneasy adulthood, transplanting her to San Francisco where she meets Holger (who goes by Olsen). At that point in her life, she is in a relationship with a wealthy man and miserable, finding herself much more drawn to the handsome, rugged Olsen, who promises nothing but good company. And so they head east, into Nevada, where he has a homestead.

l-r: Producers Jeremy Thomas and Regina Solórzano, director/writer/star Viggo Mortensen and star Vicky Krieps at TIFF23 Q&A for THE DEAD DON’T HURT. Photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

We know a little about the area from the early scenes. Local businessman Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt, Where the Crawdads Sing)—Weston’s father—controls the local town’s interests, aided by the seedy mayor (Danny Huston, Marlowe). No one really bothers Olsen and Vivienne, however, until he decides to go fight on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War and she, left behind, begins work at the saloon. Despite how tough she is, she can’t avoid a trouble which sows the seeds of greater tragedy to come.

There is beauty throughout, coupled with the violence and sorrow. The scenes between Mortensen and Krieps are lovely, filled with tenderness and humor. Best of all, the dialogue rarely tells the full scope of things, more done with subtle glances and body language than anything else. Despite these impressive strengths, the film’s tendency towards restraint results in a somewhat dissatisfying resolution. The dead may not hurt, but why, in this case, did they have to die at all?

[The Dead Don’t Hurt just had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the Special Presentations Programme.]

Cast and crew of at TIFF23 world premiere of THE DEAD DON’T HURT. Photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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