The Dead Don’t Hurt: a ruminative state-of-the-nation western

Viggo Mortensen serves as writer, director and star in a Civil War era western exploring the personal battles of a Nevada couple.

Vivienne Le Coudy as Vicky Krieps in The Dead Don’t Hurt (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival 

Time plays tricks in writer/director Viggo Mortensen’s mid-19th century oater The Dead Don’t Hurt. It opens near both the end and beginning of its heroine’s life, the sound of heavy breathing audible as French-Canadian Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) slowly expires on her deathbed, but its first image is a low-angle shot, as if from a child’s perspective, of a knight in shining armour riding through the woods. 

This might seem far from the generic terrains of a western, but this knight, along with fairies and Joan of Arc, are the story templates that shaped Vivienne as a little girl (Eliana Michaud), informing her future independence. That knight she imagined visiting her in the forest was a fantasy version of her father, lost to war. When young Vivienne asks if women also fight wars, her mother (Véronique Chaumont) tells her, “Not in the same way.”

Much as time collapses for Vivienne in the prologue, the film will go on to intercut and overlap its events out of chronological order, while illustrating the contrasting effects of conflict on men and women. History seems to repeat itself when adult Vivienne moves in with the carpenter Holger Olsen (Mortensen) – who has a horse named ‘Knight’ – in a cabin outside Elk Flats, Nevada, only for him to answer the call-up to Civil War on the Union side. Αs Vivienne worries that she will lose Holger like her father, Holger wonders if he will lose Vivienne like his former wife, when he previously went to war in his native Denmark.

The film is less concerned with Holger’s battlefield experiences than with Vivienne’s struggles on the domestic front after she is assaulted by Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod), the bullying, brutish, over-entitled son of corrupt mogul Alfred (Garret Dillahunt), and as a result, she herself becomes a single mother. Playing alongside this is a narrative strand following Vivienne’s death, in which Holger rides out into the wilderness with his young son Vincent (Atlas Green), bringing justice to rapist/murderer Weston and seeing the ocean at the “end of the world”. This sequence has Mortensen (re)treading a similar father/son journey to that of his character in John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic The Road (2009).

The historical scenario of The Dead Don’t Hurt is transparently concerned with the same divisions of race, class and sex that polarise America today. The Jeffries family – ignorant, treacherous, service-dodging, property-grabbing – anticipate the Trump dynasty, while young Vincent, educated and unconditionally loved by Holger, seems to represent an alternative, progressive future for America. This is a ruminative state-of-the-nation oater, its tender romance forced to ride along with capitalist rapacity and death.