The Dead Don’t Hurt – Review

The Dead Don't Hurt The first Western movie is said to date back to 1894, a single reel silent film that pre-dates the “golden era of Western” by almost fifty years. When you think of the genre, you think of the geography, of the morality tales, of the gunslingers and the damsels in distress. It’s a genre that waxes and wanes in terms of popularity with cinema-going audiences. In recent years, it has seen something of a revival, with the likes of True Grit, Hell or High Water, No Country for Old Men and Django Unchained flirting with the genre.

In his second feature-length film, writer-director-actor Viggo Mortensen uses the geography and the soundscapes of the West but presents an altogether more interesting offering. The Dead Don’t Hurt casts Vicky Krieps as Vivienne Le Coudy, a fiercely independent woman who moves in with Holger Olsen (Mortensen) in a small shack at the edge of a new town. Their relationship is one of equals – both able to fully meet the other’s gaze – and one that is shaped by war, ego and brutality. The film uses a non-linear narrative to flesh out its characters, peeling away layers gently without ever losing its ability to compel.

You could almost be forgiven for thinking that the film was something of a love letter to the genre, such care has gone into re-creating life in 1860s America. The dusty colour palette of greens, greys, browns, blues and beiges plunges you deep into the arid landscape. The occasional flash of a vibrant red or a midnight black thoroughly pops against the more neutral, cool tones. The score – which Mortensen also contributed to – is quite beautiful. Simple string arrangements interspersed with tinkling piano music make it feel authentically of the era. The overall soundscape is incredible – the creak of wood under a thick leather boot; the buzz of a fly seemingly out of eyeline; the crackle of a fire; the thunder clap of a pistol; the soft thud of hooves. As an audience, you feel genuinely transported to a different time.

The film also benefits from truly compelling lead performances. Vicky Krieps is not some two dimensional saloon girl or cowboy’s wife. She has strength and ideas way beyond her era. She is sure of who she is, her bold gaze refusing to flinch from those who choose to meet it. She is a challenge and a threat to those around her – she is not content with the traditional way of doing things. Even more interesting is that we see most of the film through her experiences as Olsen enlists to serve in the Civil War. This almost feels like a Western told from a woman’s perspective, which is refreshing. Krieps is, as always, thoroughly mesmerising, lending depth and nuance to Vivienne so that you could not imagine anyone else in the role.

The chemistry between Vivienne and Holger is undeniable. Their long silences should feel awkward, like two strangers who have simply been thrown together, but they feel pregnant with mutual respect and admiration. Both, in a way, are outsiders who are choosing to go against the grain. Mortensen plays Olsen like a classic taciturn hero, speaking only when necessary but saying volumes with his eyes and his body language.

As his nemesis, Weston Jeffries, Solly McLeod makes for an incredible threat. Younger, leaner and full of nepo-baby privilege and swagger, this is a character you will love to hate. Dressed head to toe in black, the menacing hiss and clank of his spurs punctuate the tension of every scene he is in. McLeod holds his own against more familiar cinematic presences, creating a character so vile and so brutal that you cannot help but hope for a dramatic pistols-at-dawn style showdown in which he is sorely defeated.

The Dead Don't Hurt Despite common genre themes of violence and personal tragedy, evolving landscapes and the (anti) hero’s journey to a new life, The Dead Don’t Hurt feels fresh and lovingly crafted. The attention to detail, in terms of character, costuming, sound design and language, is clear. This is not a rootin’ tootin’ Western but a complex examination of the individual, wider community forming and the paths available to those trying to eke out a like in this particular era. It’s about the forging of new towns and new relationships. It is very evenly paced, with the back and forth between different narratives holding your attention for the run time. It is both gentle and shocking when it needs to be.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is the perfect film for those who enjoy character-driven narratives (in any genre). It’s less flashy and more human; never losing its intimacy with its characters despite the epic scale of the story and the landscape. A thoroughly convincing second outing in the director’s chair for Mortensen.

The Dead Don’t Hurt had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024.


Mary Munoz
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  1. Pingback: The Home Games nets the Audience Award at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

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