The Dead Don’t Hurt

The Dead Don’t Hurt, 2024, 2 ¼ stars

Western wanderings

Mortensen movie meanders, pulls its emotional punch

Exclusive to MeierMovies, May 16, 2024

When a direction is not just a direction but a state of mind, it must be the American West.

Holger Olsen, despite being a Danish immigrant, embodies that state of mind like few characters in recent movie history. Quiet, inscrutable, isolationist and driven, he could have strolled in from a John Ford film if not for his European accent. He’s an intriguing character, but over the course of two hours, in the hands of writer-director-actor-producer-composer Viggo Mortensen, Holger strolls a tad too much.

Accompanying him on his walk is his love, Vivienne Le Coudy, a fellow immigrant, played passionately and memorably by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread, The Last Vermeer), one of the best actresses whose name you might still not know. After meeting randomly in San Francisco around the start of the Civil War, they travel to the Middle of Nowhere, California, to Holger’s tiny ranch, to somehow begin an unlikely life together.

“What do you do here?” she asks him upon arrival, astonished at the seclusion.

“As little as possible,” he replies.

But Holger actually does a tremendous lot. He builds barns, plants trees, provides financially for Vivienne and even becomes sheriff of the nearby town. And when the Union comes calling for soldiers to help push the Confederates out of the New Mexico Territory, he is compelled to do his duty, though it means leaving Vivienne. She’s the epitome of a strong Western woman – that’s one of the film’s central themes – but the town (mostly thanks to one particularly sadist citizen, Weston Jeffries, who has a hankering for Vivienne) can be dangerous for a single female. This is the 1860s, after all.

“How was your war?” Vivienne asks Holger upon his return.

“Too long. Not what I expected. How was yours?” he answers.

Indeed, she has fought her own battles, which inspire the central narrative of the movie’s second half. This reviewer won’t reveal them here. In fact, you’re probably thinking I’ve shared too much already. I would normally agree, but the time-jumping structure of The Dead Don’t Hurt, Mortensen’s sophomore directorial effort, disappointingly reveals most of the whats up front, with only the hows left to discover. That upside-down storytelling might be its biggest flaw, but it’s in cahoots with unnecessary ambiguity and an amateurish turn from Solly McLeod (Jericho Ridge) as Weston. (That’s the most important supporting role, requiring something akin to Jack Palance in Shane. And the British actor botches it.)

“Does it hurt?” Holger is asked about a bird that’s shot.

His titular response: “No, the dead don’t hurt.”

But the missed opportunities of a promising story, memorable ambience and two good lead performances ache excruciatingly.

© 2024 MeierMovies, LLC

For more information about this movie, visit IMDB and WikipediaThe film premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and has been playing various festivals and limited international markets ahead of its U.S. theatrical release on May 31.