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'The Dead Don’t Hurt' is a tender love story and a subversive Western

 Viggo Mortensen plays Holger Olsen in <em>The Dead Don't Hurt.</em>
Marcel-Zyskind
/
Shout! Studios
Viggo Mortensen plays Holger Olsen in The Dead Don't Hurt.

One of the many charms of The Dead Don’t Hurt is that you can’t immediately tell whether it’s trying to be an old-fashioned Western or a revisionist one. It has a lot of familiar genre signposts: men riding horses across rugged landscapes, a bloody shootout in a saloon, and two actors, Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps, who bring traditional movie-star charisma to a tender love story.

But at times the film feels casually subversive. The first of those horsemen we see is not a cowboy but a knight in shining armor — a figure out of a child’s fantastical dream. And then there’s the way the movie plays with time: That shootout, which technically happens at the end of the story, is instead shown at the very beginning.

Mortensen, who wrote and directed the movie, trusts us to know the Western well enough by now that he can play around with the form without losing our attention. He isn’t attempting a radical reinvention of the genre, but he is using its conventions to tell a different and politically resonant kind of story.

It’s especially significant that the two lead characters are both immigrants. Mortensen stars as Holger Olsen, a wandering Danish-born carpenter who finds himself in San Francisco in the 1860s. That’s where he meets Vivienne, a French Canadian florist, played by Krieps, who’s every bit as independent-minded as he is.

 Vicky Krieps is a French Canadian florist in<em> The Dead Don't Hurt. </em>
Marcel Zyskind / Shout! Studios
/
Shout! Studios
Vicky Krieps is a French Canadian florist in The Dead Don't Hurt.

The two fall in love, and Vivienne moves with Olsen to a dusty Nevada town called Elk Flats. Because the story is told out of sequence, we already know some bad things are headed their way, but for now, the mood is light and even comical as Vivienne grouchily sets about tidying their wooden shack of a home.

Vivienne isn’t one for domestic confinement, and she soon gets a job bartending at the saloon, where she catches the eye of one of the nastiest customers in town: Weston Jeffries, played by Solly McLeod, the brutish son of a wealthy rancher. Meanwhile, with the Civil War under way, Olsen decides to join the Union Army, to Vivienne’s fury.

One of the best things about The Dead Don’t Hurt is that it honors Vivienne’s grit and capability while also acknowledging how alone and vulnerable she is in this hostile, male-dominated environment. Several months after Olsen leaves, Vivienne gives birth to a baby boy under circumstances that are shrouded in some mystery. Years later, Olsen returns to Vivienne and the child, but it isn’t an entirely happy reunion, and they face a grim reckoning with the town and some of its most corrupt individuals.

Mortensen made his feature directing debut with the 2020 drama Falling, in which he played a gay man trying to take care of his ailing, bigoted father. With The Dead Don’t Hurt, he uses a story set in the past to comment on issues that are still with us in the present, from male violence against women to the complexity of immigrant relationships with their adopted country. Even as Vivienne embraces her life as an American settler, she proudly clings to her French Canadian roots, sometimes dreamily recalling the stories her mother told her about Joan of Arc — an obvious hero for a woman trying to forge her own unorthodox path through life.

As a director, Mortensen handles the material with quiet assurance; even when he cuts back and forth through time, he never loses the narrative thread. He also gives a gently grounded performance as Olsen, a decent man who sometimes makes impulsive, reckless decisions.

But this is ultimately Krieps’ movie. She’s often played women chafing against their proscribed stations in life, in dramas like Phantom Thread and Corsage. Here, she captures the indomitable spirit of a woman who’s making her way in a strange land and is determined to find and nurture beauty in even the harshest circumstances.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.