Top-billed Vicky Krieps dies in the opening frame of Viggo Mortensen’s “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” with a tear running down her cheek and her co-star/director keeping vigil at her bedside, which might prompt some confusion from the casual viewer; is this a Western zombie movie? It is not, but it’s a picture that takes some time to reveal its methodology and motives; the viewer’s patience is required but rewarded.
Mortensen’s bona fides as a distinctive Western director are established moments later in scenes of offhand, unflinching brutality. We meet our main villain, Westin Jeffries (Solly McLeod) — a man in black who acts accordingly — as he guns down six men in a fit of rage and rides out of town. The trouble is his father, Alfred (Garret Dillahunt), is a rich rancher, so he conspires with the Nevada mining town’s mayor/banker (Danny Huston) to blame the killing spree on the town drunk. After an especially unruly trial (complete with a pistol-packing judge, played with relish by the great Ray McKinnon), the innocent man is hung by his neck in a scene of grim grisliness.
Mortensen plays Holger Olsen, a Dutch immigrant and, in theory, the town sheriff. But the grieving widower is essentially a bystander throughout this mess, and when it’s all over, he puts flowers on his wife’s grave, makes his last payment on his land, and turns in his badge, riding off with his son into the sunset. But not quite.
The picture’s violence mostly subsides after these startling opening passages, and it nestles itself in his flashbacks and memories of his dear departed Vivienne (Krieps), of who she was and how he came to love her. The French Canadian flower girl does not suffer fools gladly, as we discover when she’s first seen out on a dinner date with a bloviating nitwit; she tires of his chatter, so she just gets up and leaves wordlessly. Vivienne and Olsen’s initial attraction could best be described as “delight at first sight” — they have a playful, sexy, sweet chemistry, and there’s a lovely, sometimes literal, earthiness to their byplay.
Soon, they make a home together in a structure striking only in its plainness. “This is the place you chose?” she asks, “of all the places you’ve seen?” (Krieps has a wonderfully dry way of delivering a line like that.) They keep it casual, never bothering to make their Union legal, but soon discover that their emotions run very deep indeed, mainly via her reluctance to let him leave her alone on their homestead so he can go fight for the Union. “I will miss you,” he tells her. “I hope so!” she replies.
What happens when he’s gone should be preserved for your viewing; suffice it to say that events transpire that are both shocking and unsurprising. Mortensen keeps the timeframes parallel as Olsen and his son continue their journey westward, and we soon realize that this is no mere memory play — the more he remembers, and the longer they travel, the clearer that nature of the connection to the community and this particular crime becomes. Mortensen’s sensitive script gingerly tracks the evolution of their relationship and the warmth that perseveres through it in spite of considerable woes.
This screenplay is respectful of the Western tradition, and the dynamics of the town are familiar from a million oaters — the rancher who wields power without even raising his voice, the banker who shakes down anyone who can generate an extra dollar. But those characters, and other fine if familiar types, get extra juice from terrific actors like Huston and Dillahunt; they’re basically embodying the ne plus ultra of their established screen personas. McLeod is particularly electrifying as Weston Jeffries, a small, petty, vile brat of a man whose proclivity for sudden bursts of savage violence sets his every scene on edge.
Krieps is smashing, both in her moments of strength — the story is, at its core, about how she finds her steel interior— and occasional vulnerability. Mortensen gives her the kind of moments that perhaps only an actor-turned-director knows to create; watch how his camera lands on her face when Olsen rides away, trying her best to keep it together, then finally giving in to despair. It’s a marvelous piece of acting in a film full of them. Mortensen balances her effectively, presenting a good, strong physical presence as a man of exceedingly few words, especially early on, which means it takes a good long while to puzzle out exactly what accent he’s doing.
It also takes a few scenes to work through exactly what he’s doing, narratively and structurally, which is potentially alienating (and the structure isn’t always sound; his flashbacks to her flashbacks seem like a bit of a stretch, from a storytelling perspective). His leisurely approach can drag things out a bit, and the fidgety viewer may lose patience as the picture moseys into its third hour. Yet it remains visually engaging and beautifully photographed (the cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind), though never in a showy or stagy way.
If the destination of Olsen and son becomes clear before they get there, that’s less a case of predictability than inevitability. Mortensen is playing with iconography here, so it’s less about that destination than the journey — and he finds the right, delicate, evocative note to conclude on and holds it exactly as long as he should. “The Dead Don’t Hurt” isn’t your typical revenge Western, but audiences willing to stick with it will find a picture rendered with grace, patience, and artistry. [B]