Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Dead Don’t Hurt – Viggo Mortensen’s impressive tussle between romance and western (cinemas across UK and Ireland from Friday 7 June)

Shots are fired in a hostelry. Tick. An officer of the law is shot in a dusty town square, falling to the ground and lying face-down motionless. Tick. Someone rides off into the distance on a horse. Tick. The goat joins the townsfolk to watch an innocent man incapable of defending himself being hung. Tick …

The Dead Don’t Hurt initially has all the hallmarks of a western. Until Viggo Mortensen – who is writer, director, actor and composer – splices up the story and stitches it back together in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, part romance, part western. (The delicate touch of film editor Peder Pedersen should take a lot of the credit for the success of this bold storytelling.) It’s almost like long hair being platted, weaving together the different strands to form a recognisable, neatly constructed pattern of beauty.

Soon we’re seeing a young French-Canadian girl who is fascinated with Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) and grows up into an independent spirited woman Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) who falls in (love) with a Danish immigrant carpenter Olsen (Viggo Mortensen). They set up home on the outskirts of a town in the state of Nevada. She grows flowers and gets a job in the local saloon. The romance builds. “You’re more handy with every passing day” … right up to the moment Olsen decides to go off to fight in the Civil War.

Then the western aspect takes back control. Solly McLeod plays Weston Jeffries, the violent and untamed son of a local businessman. The mayor is crooked. The local judge administers justice through the medium of preaching.

For the period of the war, Olsen is off-screen, fittingly because this is a portrait of Vivienne and a vehicle that shows off Krieps’ character acting. Before and after – that’s not a spoiler given the open five minutes of the film – he’s a man of few words and unsentimental. The couple can almost converse by facial expression. Her smile melts his heart. His loyalty is tested. Violence begets violence. And the western urges finally overcome the film’s romantic notions.

While the runtime is long, the teasing out of the key moments in Vivienne and Olsen’s lives is fulfilling. The Dead Don’t Hurt is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, The Avenue and Cineworld Belfast from Friday 7 June.


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