L Movie Review 2Westerns are such an endangered species these days that it’s refreshing merely to see them attempted at all. To make a Western — or an “oater,” as old-school film buffs fondly refer to them — is an act of faith in the powerful lure of this most American of genres. The Dead Don’t Hurt is Viggo Mortensen’s second try as director and it’s the kind of vanity project you can admire even when it misses the mark, because Mortensen believes so firmly in what he’s doing. It will suffice as an appetizer for Kevin Costner’s Horizon saga, coming out later this summer. 

This Mexican-Canadian-Danish coproduction is set on the western U.S. frontier, just before the Civil War. It chronicles the romance between two immigrants, Danish carpenter Holger (Viggo Mortensen) and Franco-Canadian florist Vivienne (Vicky Krieps), who meet in San Francisco. Vivienne is independent and feisty, and though marriage doesn’t interest her, she agrees to live with Holger in his dusty shack of a cabin on the edge of a cowtown in the Nevada Territory. But as soon as she takes a job at a local saloon and proceeds to bring a woman’s touch to the homestead, Holger enlists in the Union Army and leaves her vulnerable to the advances of Weston (Solly McLeod), a local creep who happens to be the son of a powerful rancher (Garret Dillahunt).

Those who are even modestly familiar with Western tropes — especially revisionist ones sustained by the likes of Clint Eastwood in his prime — can guess what happens next. When the dust settles, what emerges from the violent clash of wills is nothing less than a portrait of a woman — the kind of stubborn, fiercely intelligent lady whose name you don’t find often enough in history books. (Mortensen dedicated the film to his mother.) As played by the gifted Luxembourgian actress Krieps — who continues her upward climb, following the successes of Phantom Thread and Corsage — Vivienne is a restless beauty, haunted by images of Joan of Arc and dead set on carving out a dignified life from a barbarous terrain. While her love scenes with Holger crackle with passion, she also has the fortitude, after surviving a heinous assault, to gather her strength, report to work the next day, and stare her assailant square in the eye.

Mortensen, who also wrote the original screenplay and composed the plaintive score, is clearly in love with the idea of this woman, and with the performer who plays her. He lavishes Krieps with myriad tender close-ups, many of them bathed in smears of candlelight and held for an inordinate amount of time. He even loves to watch her chew her food! As with so many actors-turned-directors, he tends to dwell on little domestic moments that slacken an already languid pace. Mortensen also employs a complex flashback structure that scrambles the sequence of events and underscores the threadbare storyline. McLeod’s take on the brutish Weston provides the film with a jolt of electricity, but other characters remain inscrutably on the outskirts of the plot, such as the corrupt town mayor (Danny Huston, sounding more like his late father, John, than ever), who seems to belong in another movie happening off-screen.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is more a covert romance posing as a Western, rather than an heir to the films that Mortensen enjoyed as a kid — namely those of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann. Viewers going into it expecting the kind of action the trailer promises will have to wait two solid hours before a final confrontation delivers the requisite blood, dirt, and sweat. But patient viewers will be rewarded by the thoughtful location work, much of it shot around Durango, Mexico, in places that feel untouched by man. The closing shot, expertly lensed by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, finds hope on the horizon, even as the sun sets on a way of life never to be regained. It’s a moving coda for a film that prefers to trot, rather than gallop, through a thicket of Western clichés




































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