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The Dead Don’t Hurt Review

The Dead Don’t Hurt Review

In an America on the cusp of the Civil War, immigrants Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) and Holger (Viggo Mortensen) fall in love, and start making a home for themselves together. But when he decides to join up and go fight the Confederacy, disaster strikes on the home front, with grave ramifications for both of them.

The Dead Don’t Hurt, written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, has been rather bafflingly marketed as a ‘feminist western’. One can only assume that’s down to Vicky Krieps, who brings a stubborn power to every part she plays, her glorious bluntness and refusal to go along to get along making something of even the most thinly written role. Vivienne is one of those thinly written roles, and Krieps does indeed manage to find some dimension within the sketch of her character – she makes us feel the struggle her life has been and how that struggle has shaped her, even if Mortensen’s screenplay is scant with the details (though what details there are, of course, revolve around her dead father…).

The film is at its strongest in sequences when she and Mortensen’s Holger engage in a patient courtship, trying to get the measure of each other as they contend with their mutual attraction. During these scenes, at least, the leisurely pacing does not matter a bit – in fact, it’s quite enjoyable.


However good Krieps is – and she really is very good – there’s no escaping her character’s function in the plot. The movie operates non-linearly, in two separate timelines. The first time we see her, she is dying of some mysterious cause. Instantly, Vivienne is made more mystery than three-dimensional human being.

There’s worse still. The threat of sexual violence is omnipresent in westerns, and has been since the very earliest years of the genre. As soon as we meet Solly McLeod’s baddie here, as soon as he expresses his first lascivious interest in Vivienne, we know exactly what’s coming. And, whilst it’s filmed with sensitivity, we’re not wrong. Afterwards, when Holger finds out what’s happened, The Dead Don’t Hurt becomes just another movie about another man avenging ‘his woman’ – a couple of the resulting scenes are so tired, so cliched, it’s hard not to just roll your eyes. First Vivienne’s a mystery to solve, then she’s a motivation for vengeance. Despite Krieps’ best efforts, we get vanishingly little time here when she’s an actual person.

Other things happen here, although their import is rendered muddy by the non-linear timeline (clearly a device to keep Krieps in the action as long as possible, but one that plays havoc with the general narrative cohesion). Reliable old hands Garrett Dillahunt and Danny Huston are up to no good – an early, strikingly nasty scene sees them collude to pin a multiple murder on a poor, unsuspecting town citizen. After a promising start, their nefariousness fizzles out to pretty much nothing; it feels as if Mortensen just loses interest.

As much as it’s always frustrating to watch women have their whole essence reduced to what they mean to a man, ultimately The Dead Don’t Hurt’s most fatal flaw is that it’s completely, utterly forgettable.


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