Review: The Dead Don’t Hurt

Though there are notable exceptions, men have been at the center of the Western for its entire existence. The genre has been consumed with stories about men who want to tame both the wilderness and the baser instincts of their fellow frontiersmen. Women exist on the margins of these narratives as wives, sex workers, or objects to be saved, if they appear on screen at all. Yet while Viggo Mortensen wrote, directed, and stars in The Dead Don’t Hurt, it isn’t his character who is at the heart of the revisionist Western; instead, it’s Vicky Krieps’s spirited spitfire who gives this film its soul. 

The Dead Don’t Hurt contains many of the genre’s trappings — a moral sheriff in a remote town riddled with corruption, saloon-set shoot-outs, a fiddle-heavy score, etc. — but its uncommon structure and perspective keep it from feeling too straight-forward or like something we’ve seen before. Mortensen’s film moves backward and forward through time, weaving between moments from the childhood of French-Canadian woman Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps), how she meets Danish pioneer Holger Olsen (Mortensen) in San Francisco, and the life they build on the California frontier, both together and apart. 

Their separation is a critical point; most Westerns would follow Olsen when he leaves to fight in the Civil War or would toggle between the two perspectives. Instead, The Dead Don’t Hurt stays solely with the fiercely independent Vivienne, sharing how she navigates Olsen’s absence. Though Westerns largely ignore the role women played in the evolution of the American West, The Dead Don’t Hurt not only acknowledges their part, but it also centers their experience. Unfortunately, some choices by Mortensen ultimately undercut the power of centering a woman’s POV in this type of film, but it’s still invigorating to see this shift, especially since it centers on Krieps’s Vivienne.

Krieps’s best roles have her defying expectations and refusing to simply support the men in her characters’ lives, whether in Phantom Thread, Corsage, or Bergman Island. (Apologies to Old.) Her demeanor in these films is often relatively quiet, but she’s unafraid of fighting convention, and there’s a ferocity running just beneath her skin that can’t be contained. 

After his directorial debut, the contemporary drama Falling in 2020, Mortensen tackles this Western with spare but sufficient period detail. Casting three actors from Deadwood — Garret Dillahunt, W. Earl Brown, and Ray McKinnon — feels like a bit of a cheat toward establishing his genre bonafides, but who wouldn’t be tempted to use that cast in a similar setting? Like Krieps and Mortensen, they all have faces that believably haven’t seen the glow of a screen and add authenticity to a small production like this. There aren’t a ton of sets — in addition to the requisite outdoor scenes, most of the action takes place at Vivienne and Olsen’s home or in the saloon — but the production design for what we do see doesn’t take us out of 1860s California. 

Though this is a Western with action scenes at its beginning and end to satisfy genre fans who won’t be happy if someone doesn’t fire a six-shooter, The Dead Don’t Hurt leans more into its romantic aspects. The fast, easy connection between Vivienne and Olsen is full of warmth and understanding, with them seeing each other as equals. She isn’t just his wife — or even his wife at all, going against the cultural standards of the time. Instead, she is a full person outside of her relationship with Olsen. 

The Dead Don’t Hurt is thoughtful in how it interrogates the Western and its tropes, but it still shows clear affection for its antecedents without overly romanticizing the genre or the period. Mortensen treads a time-worn path, but he deviates from it in deliberate and meditative ways. What results is a largely satisfying Western, driven by character and contemplation.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” is out Friday.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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