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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ review: A foursquare western from Viggo Mortensen

By Ben Kenigsberg

In making an honest go at reviving the movie western, Viggo Mortensen — who directed, wrote and stars in “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” in addition to composing its score — delivers a few different westerns in one.

Not counting a deathbed prologue, the film initially seems to be staking out a claim in the law-and-order corner of the genre. Mortensen, as a bereaved sheriff named Holger Olsen, appears skeptical when a town dullard stands accused of six murders and apparently claimed not to remember any of them. The local courthouse — a makeshift affair cobbled together in the saloon — is not the most forgiving place for the wrongfully accused, or for anyone. (At one point, in lieu of slamming a gavel to call for order, the judge fires a gun upward twice, then glances toward the ceiling to make sure it won’t cave in.)

We’ve already seen the killer. Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod), the entitled and vicious son of the area’s leading rancher, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), is introduced mid-spree: He is first seen emerging from the saloon and casually shooting two people in a single take before the title card appears, dangling above a corpse.

But before “The Dead Don’t Hurt” can become a film about a good sheriff’s efforts to correct a miscarriage of justice, it flashes back to tell the story of another character, Vivienne Le Coudy (played as an adult by Vicky Krieps). A brisker, more classically mounted western might have kept her offscreen, relegating her to the sheriff’s back story.

Painting on a bigger canvas, Mortensen gives his film a nested, at times unnecessarily complicated structure. (Vivienne’s French Canadian childhood gets somewhat superfluous flashbacks of its own.) Once the grown Vivienne meets Olsen — she prefers calling him by his last name — they set out to build a life together. Olsen is an able carpenter; Vivienne has a knack for shooting fowl. She cleans up his dusty, drab parcel of land and inspires him to add some greenery.

But all is not bliss on the homestead, as the Civil War beckons. Olsen, who served as a soldier for his native Denmark, believes that it’s a moral imperative to fight for the Union, leaving Vivienne at home to struggle in what Olsen later notes is a war of her own, with the predatory Weston as her chief antagonist.

Shooting primarily in Durango, Mexico, Mortensen ably handles the division of perspectives and dramas — when Olsen goes off to war, the movie cedes center stage to Vivienne — without ever losing interest or proportion. Only the ending, a would-be poetic parting note too gentle for the gritty spectacle that has preceded it, and too untethered to its themes, comes across as a weak point.

Even then, with performances this good, it’s hard to mind much. Both Krieps and Mortensen are aided immeasurably by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind’s delicate use of sunlight and shadow, and McLeod makes a terrifying brute. Mortensen’s ambitions may be old-fashioned, but they’re grand ambitions, and he has realized them in a handsome passion project.

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