The Dead Don't Hurt review: "Viggo Mortensen's gritty, beautiful frontier tale"

 the dead don't hurt
the dead don't hurt

The Dead Don't Hurt has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; here's our review.

Viggo Mortensen goes west for his sophomore feature as writer/director. As with his directorial debut, Falling (2020), the multihyphenate also stars and supplies the score. Though unconfirmed, you wouldn’t put it past him to have actually built the wooden barns his carpenter character assembles with a craftsman’s precision in the sparse, barely populated Nevada town of the story’s 1860s setting.

It’s a western with all the trappings you’d expect - wide-brimmed hats, swinging saloon doors, six-shooters - plus a degree of sensitivity you wouldn’t so readily associate with the genre. This duality is laid bare at the start, when we witness the last gasps of breath of Vicky Krieps’ Vivienne, who’s dreaming of a knight on horseback (a poetic touch that returns, effectively, throughout the film). Meanwhile, a man in a long black coat shoots up the patrons of a bar and the deputy sheriff before fleeing. An absence of justice sees Sheriff Olsen (Mortensen) turn in his badge and leave town with his young son.

Both parts comprise an effective opener that does a solid job of getting you invested, before Mortensen takes a more leisurely, dual-timelined approach to lay out the lead-up to and fallout from these incidents. Most of the runtime concerns what came before, as we follow French-Canadian Vivienne from her childhood to her emigration to America. There she meets Danish immigrant Olsen in San Francisco, before they travel together to his spartan homestead in Nevada.

It’s more of a love story on the range than a revenge western of lawman vs. blackhat. Krieps is excellent as the formidable and resourceful Vivienne, who brings life to Olsen’s barn, opts to earn money by working at the saloon, and holds down the fort while Olsen, a military veteran, enlists to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Handily, Mortensen’s tache/beard helps to keep a handle on which timeline we’re in, as it’s constantly hopping, piling flashbacks upon flashbacks.

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen

This forging of a relationship, and a home, is quietly compelling, and there’s a tenderness that prevents things from ever feeling too grim, despite the hardships of this life, and the direction we’re inevitably heading in. It’s also leavened with a few laughs, such as Vivienne chiding Oslen over his pronunciation of omelette, or her visible disappointment when she first sees his no-frills home.

The production design and costumes are immaculate, and like the landscapes, beautifully shot by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. The environment is more than a backdrop; it’s an essential foundation of the story, enveloping everything. And it looks simply stunning, making you grateful for the slow pace that allows you to soak up the scenery.

Some of the dialogue can occasionally feel a little ripe, a bit western 101; that feeling's not eased by the appearance of not one but three supporting players from Deadwood showing up. The aforementioned blackhat, Solly McLeod’s Weston Jeffries, the son of a prominent corrupt local, is also pretty one-note as a villain. While not ineffective - you certainly root for the varmint to get his due - a modicum of nuance wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Still, it’s a welcome spin on the once-dominant genre that now struggles for oxygen. It’s also less brutal a viewing experience than Mortensen’s punishing directorial debut, with plenty of shoots of hope, and an abundance of natural beauty. Olsen - for the short time he’s in the post - is an atypical sheriff, exhibiting dignity, quiet authority, and restraint. You get the impression that Mortensen would do a similarly fine job in real life, if he were handed a hat and badge.

The Dead Don't Hurt's release date is currently TBC.