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The Dead Don’t Hurt

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Dead Don’t Hurt
Photograph: Signature Entertainment

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The Good, the Bad and the Viggo

Watching this sturdy, sensitively acted Old West drama, it’s easy to wonder how many westerns Viggo Mortensen would have made if he’d been kicking about in the ’50s and ’60s. With his rugged visage and stoical quality, no actor looks more at home on a horse, caked in dust, or chewing over a moral quandary that will inevitably end in someone being punched through a saloon window.

The writer-director-star’s shakily titled but very watchable The Dead Don’t Hurt – his fourth western after Young Guns II, Hidalgo and Appaloosa – finds an affecting new way into the genre. Set mainly in the 1860s, it’s a homesteader drama nestled (literally) in a valley beyond which those age-old western staples – corrupt lawmen, vicious blackhats and innocent townsfolk – exert an irresistible and tragic pull.

Mortensen’s Civil War veteran, Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant roped into becoming sheriff of a small Nevada town, is introduced watching on when an innocent man is sentenced to hang for gunning down some locals. The murderous son of the local cattle man (Brit actor Solly McLeod) is the obvious culprit. Surely Olsen will intervene heroically and stop this miscarriage of justice?

Except, no. Mortensen the screenwriter and director isn’t interested in turning Mortensen the actor into a Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper hero. The upstanding but flawed Olsen is a study in believable complexity: a taciturn ex-soldier whose gentle nature can harden into quiet anger like adobe on an outhouse wall. 

No actor looks more at home caked in dust than Viggo Mortensen

In fact, it’s Olsen’s wife, French-Canadian Vivienne, played by the wonderful Vicky Krieps, who’s the real soul of a story, providing it with a strong feminist core. The Phantom Thread star is playful yet steely as this forthright woman whose small triumphs have been hard won, and who has no time for male bravado. Her exchanges with Mortensen’s equally single-minded Dane give the film its best moments.

The film’s fiddly structure, which opens close to the end, before catapulting back to the couple’s early courtship on the docks of San Francisco, and then darts around like a disorientated rattlesnake, works against any kind of momentum, though. It’s not a problem while the film is a tender study of a marriage on the frontier, but when it morphs into a more traditional revenge story, there’s a disjointed, half-hearted feel to things.

Still, the wider characters, especially Danny Huston’s unctuously dodgy mayor and Garret Dillahunt’s calculating rancher, are nicely drawn and the widescreen locations (with Mexico and Canada standing in for Nevada) are a treat in themselves. And Viggo, well, he was born to ride.   

In UK cinemas Jun 7.  

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Viggo Mortensen
  • Screenwriter:Viggo Mortensen
  • Cast:
    • Viggo Mortensen
    • Vicky Krieps
    • Garret Dillahunt
    • Solly McLeod
    • Danny Huston
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