This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.In the first few moments of The Dead Don’t Hurt, writer-director Viggo Mortensen’s latest Western in which he also stars alongside Vicky Krieps, there is a whole lot of death. Some of it comes via loud shootouts that may pop into the mind when you think of classic elements of the genre. Another comes in a quieter, more devastating scene where life just vanishes from the eyes as a lone tear traces its way down the face of someone we have not yet come to know. We soon will as the film traces its way forward and backward through time. In doing so, there is much that can feel rather shaky narratively as the story often feels like it is stumbling its way through some setups that require greater nuance than they get. At the same time, there is also much that is gradually shattering when it manages to settle into a rhythm of a life that recalls something more like Kelly Reichardt’s utterly fantastic 2019 film First Cow. It isn’t ever as consistently measured as that, but enough small moments get close.
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Set in the 1860s, it places us in the lives of Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps) and Holger Olsen (Mortensen). The former is French Canadian and the latter is Danish with their own respective histories intersecting when they meet in San Francisco. Their initial connection is somewhat haltingly humorous, as the two come from vastly different lives, but they remain drawn together by an intense attraction. When they subsequently move to a remote area in Nevada to start their life together, their differences come into focus as Holger seems content to live a simple life while Vivienne wants to bring vibrancy into their corner of their world. At moments, it almost recalls Phantom Thread in which Krieps also was able to speak volumes with every single moment. The main difference comes in that Mortensen is more interested in exploring the isolation between the two as his character soon disappears from the film for several years, leaving Vivienne to survive on her own in a town that is defined by corruption and callousness that threatens the life they’ve built. This reaches a breaking point in an incident that will forever alter the course of both of their lives once they’re reunited.
Krieps Is Outstanding Once More in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’
While the details about what exactly plays out are best kept to a minimum, as the film is structured in a way where the precise context for moments already seen is withheld, the best parts of the film can be discussed in their entirety. In this case, it is Krieps who is the central force. Even as much of her character’s storyline plays out in the past, it is this part that takes on a poetic resonance that echoes throughout the entire film. Every single conversation, be it with the friends Vivienne makes or the tormentors they all must avoid, is made into something mesmerizing in her hands. Though some cuts take you out of it, especially in how it jumps far into the future when she is not there, her performance ensures it still leaves a mark. There is never a dull moment to her scenes as we just get completely wrapped up in the particulars of what Vivienne must do in order to survive in a life that is simultaneously humble and harsh. It creates a tension that, without ever overplaying its hand, still feels authentic even as it cuts deep. It is the type of narrative focus you only wish had been maintained throughout.
In many regards, it makes everything that plays out after it into something that is almost meaningless without her. Some of this is certainly intentional, as her absence lingers like a void that makes carrying on as normal impossible, though there is still much that doesn’t have the same confidence as what is playing out in the past. As it shifts the focus back to Mortensen’s character, it feels out of balance and like we are seeing two vastly different movies. Everything with Krieps is like we are witnessing the entirety of a life with all its many joys and pains. It takes on a more lyrical quality as we just get lost in her day-to-day existence. With Mortensen, it is a far more one-dimensional path that it takes us down. Even as he travels further in a geographical sense, there is something oddly inert about it. The patience with which everything else played out gives way to a predictability that is increasingly superficial. Some of the way these two parts are put in conversation works, with the friction creating a spark, but that lessens once the future becomes the only thing still playing out.
The Journey Is More Intriguing Than the Destination in ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’
Though the ending is somewhat disappointing and less dynamic than everything that preceded it, this can’t take away all that the film still has going for it. Any chance to see Krieps get to fully inhabit a role like this is reason enough to go along for the ride through time. That it doesn’t fully tie everything up in as compelling of fashion is unfortunate, with a recurring metaphor feeling particularly incomplete when the texture of Vivienne’s life was far more vibrant, but ultimately forgivable when viewed as a complete piece. Perhaps the most unintentionally memorable part of it is how there is more earned beauty to be found in the confines of what is largely a single location as long as Krieps is there to inhabit it.
The Dead Don’t Hurt had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.