Viggo Mortensen may be high up in the saddle, but co-star Vicky Krieps is the true central figure of the revisionist Western that marks the actor’s second foray into director-screenwriting after the 2020s. Traps.
Has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The dead don’t hurt features many classic hallmarks of the venerable genre, including a villain who literally wears a black hat. But it also offers a decidedly modern feminist streak, making it more of a deeply moving romance than a traditional otter. With excellent performances from the two protagonists, the movie is a western for people who don’t like westerns.
The dead don’t hurt
It comes down to
No sophomore slump for this talented actor/filmmaker.
Set on the western frontier of the 1860s, the story begins with Mortensen’s character, a Danish immigrant, burying his wife who has died of an unspecified illness. We only learn what happened as the film progresses, which depicts the courtship between Holger (Mortensen) and French-Canadian Vivienne (Krieps) after they meet in San Francisco. Despite the fact that Vivienne is already in a relationship with another man, a wealthy art dealer, the attraction between her and the taciturn but courtly Holger is immediate.
It isn’t long before she travels with him to the remote Nevada town where he works as a carpenter and moves into his bare cabin in a deserted valley, surrounded only by dirt. The two enjoy a happy life together, with the independent Vivienne selling flowers and taking a job at a local bar. But when civil war breaks out, Holger impulsively reports and leaves her to fend for herself.
It turns out to be a fateful decision, as it isn’t long before she is brutally beaten and raped by Weston (British actor Solly McLeod, pretty disgusting), the violent son of a powerful farmer (Garret Dillahunt) who is a business partner of the town’s corrupt mayor (Danny Huston, just as good as his father John at projecting evil disguised as charm). Everyone in town ignores the obvious heinous crime, which leads to Vivienne having a son.
When Holger returns home years later, he is shocked to discover Vivienne has a baby boy (Atlas Green) in her arms. When she tells what happened, he immediately grabs a gun and starts to leave to confront Weston, but she tells him that he has already left town after killing some Mexicans. Holger soon accepts the situation, raises the boy as his own and resumes his blissful domesticity with Vivienne, becoming the town’s sheriff along the way.
The film’s melodramatic, violent plot elements are ultimately less interesting than its subtle portrayal of two mature, emotionally available individuals who form a loving bond despite countless disagreements and harsh obstacles. The dialogue is mostly rudimentary: “How was your war?” Vivienne asks Holger about a typical example on his return – but the underlying emotions are conveyed in full by Mortensen and Krieps. The former plays underplay in typical fashion, letting his authoritative masculinity, diamond-sharpening cheekbones (sometimes even buried under a thick beard), and commanding screen presence fill the screen, while Krieps delivers yet another astonishing twist in a career that already seems destined for greatness . . Her Vivienne – warm yet steely, courageous yet vulnerable, fierce yet loving – is a complex, fascinating character who is compelling every moment she appears on screen.
Mortensen proves to be a steady hand behind the camera, infusing the slow procedure with an elegant visual style, supported by Marcel Zyskind’s handsome widescreen cinematography and a plaintive musical score composed by himself. The dead don’t hurt feels more stylistically secure than the tonally wobbly when it affects Trapsand even the occasional missteps – such as an over-reliance on fantasy sequences in which Vivienne depicts her late father as a knight in armor – proves harmless to its overall power.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (special presentations)
Production: Talipot Studio, Recorded Picture Company, Perceval Pictures
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Viggo Mortensen, Solly McLeod, Garret Dillahunt, Colin Morgan, Ray McKinnon, W. Earl Brown, Atlas Green, Danny Huston
Director-screenwriter-composer: Viggo Mortensen
Producers: Regina Solorzano, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Thomas
Executive Producers: Roberto Paxson, Gabriel Terrazas, George Bennett, Andrew Kotliar, Ivan Kelava, Daniel Beckerman, Jesper Morthorst, Paula Astorga Riestra, Peter Watson
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production Designers: Carol Spier, Jason Clarke
Editor: Peder Pedersen
Costume Designer: Anne Dixon
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Natalie Boutrie
2 hours 9 minutes