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5 June 2024

Viggo Mortensen’s self-indulgent Western

In The Dead Don’t Hurt, the actor struggles to update an archaic genre.

By David Sexton

The actor Viggo Mortensen played supporting parts until, in his early forties, he found fame as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a heroic role which he made his own with his chiselled, Nordic looks, gaunt physique and magnetic presence.

David Cronenberg then cast him as the lead in three of his thrillers, beginning with the tremendous comic-book adaptation A History of Violence (2005), in which he plays a loving family man, Tom Stall, who reverts to being a savage killer, Crazy Joey, when the false identity he has maintained for 20 years is blown. It’s his best role, Cronenberg divining how just well Mortensen could hold together such opposites – a duality evident to good effect in his role as the stoic Father in 2009’s The Road as well.

Mortensen himself is keenly creative, practising multiple arts. He is a poet, photographer, painter, publisher, musician and composer, as well as being politically active. In 2020, he wrote, directed, produced and scored, as well as starred in, his first wholly authored feature film, Falling, about a middle-aged gay man whose homophobic father moves in with him after developing dementia.

Now here’s his second, The Dead Don’t Hurt, an updated Western, set in the 1860s, filmed mainly in Mexico. As it turns out, you can update a horse and cart – but only so far. Mortensen, now 65, again plays the male lead (not his plan for either of these films, he says, but the only way to get them financed). Its star, though, is the great Luxembourger Vicky Krieps, whose breakout role came in Phantom Thread in 2017.

Krieps plays a French-Canadian woman, Vivienne, brought up in the wilds. She was tutored by her mother in the legend of Joan of Arc and, as a little girl, given to fantasies of meeting a knight in the woods, her father having left to fight the British and never returned.

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We next meet Vivienne as a grown woman, fiercely independent and making a living as a flower-seller in San Francisco. Wandering by the docks, she notices a Danish man, Olsen (Mortensen), a former soldier, irresistibly good-looking despite his age and shagginess, a reticent charmer, lounging there with his special horse, Knight. (Mortensen loves horses and has published a book in praise of them.) The pair connect straightaway, as if recognising their destiny to be together.

They move to Olsen’s little wooden home, outside a small town in rocky Nevada. He earns a living as a carpenter and reads a lot; Vivienne works in the local saloon (“I like to earn my own money”), improves their home and makes a garden. But this town is in the grip of a corrupt mayor (Danny Huston) in cahoots with the town’s main rancher (Garret Dillahunt), whose son (Solly McLeod) is a psychotic bully, a killer and a rapist.

Olsen, being a thoroughly good man, practically a saint, decides it is his duty to go off and fight for the Union, despite his age. “It’s the right thing to do, fighting against slavery,” he says – all the dialogue being this basic, as though somebody had made notes for what needed to be conveyed at a certain point and then forgotten to come back and polish it into actual speech.

Vivienne is left to fend for herself and the film follows her struggle, not Olsen’s exploits. When he returns after many years – “How was your war?” “Too long. Not what I expected” – much has changed. Vivienne has a small, sweet son.

So this is a fairly conventional trajectory for a Western – or oater, as they’re fondly called in the trade – save for the multiculturalism and the decision to follow the woman’s path, rather than the man’s. Krieps (25 years younger than Mortensen, I’m sorry to report) fully justifies that. She has great, intransigent presence, never quite predictable, so that all the time she’s on screen you’re held by her, rather than those she’s with.

Mortensen, though, has chosen to tell this story not only very slowly indeed but in a non-linear fashion, giving us some of the last scenes first (including several deaths), so that we are not sure what we have witnessed until we can interpret it later. The film cuts between these narrative levels without any notification. Only as we near the end can we understand why Olsen, with the boy, on one horse, is tracking another rider – a scene that’s been mystifyingly interpolated from the start. Pathos may be gained by being thus required to assemble the story for yourself, but immediacy is lost. Oaters don’t need to be so complicated.

Viggo Mortensen is an actor I’ll see in anything, but he has indulged himself here. Westerns are at best archaic. And actors need to be directed, not to direct.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” is in cinemas now

[See also: Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the franchise’s grandest, most expensive yet]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024