June 19, 2024 6:34 am

The Dead Don't Hurt
The Dead Don't Hurt

The Dead Don’t Hurt

One of my great great great grandfathers fought for the Union and survived the Battle of Antietam. After his infantry unit was wiped out, he survived by crawling under a heap of corpses and staying there for two days. As a child, I often found myself thinking about a person doing what he did and then going on to live a normal life, or whatever was classified as normal in the late 1800s. I thought about him again watching Viggo Mortensen’s film “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” a movie that injects the sorts of monumental moments of suffering and violence that you’re used to seeing in more traditional, action-oriented Westerns into a tale that is mainly interested in the relationship between a man, a woman, and a child, and the intrigue among various characters who live in the nearest small town. 

Written, directed and scored by Mortensen (in his second venture behind the camera, following the contemporary family drama “Falling“), and set before and during the US Civil War, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” has scenes and reminiscent of films and TV shows that would probably be classified more as historical dramas with Western flavoring rather than straight-up Westerns. There’s a sadistic psychopath who dresses in black, some rich men who lord their power over a Southwestern town, a goodhearted and soft-spoken sheriff, his steely wife, their beautiful, innocent son, and other variations on types that you tend to encounter in movies set during this period of US history. There is savage violence of various kinds, and it’s presented realistically and unsparingly, except for one very cruel act that’s kept mainly offscreen. 

But there are no stagecoach or train robberies, quick-draws at high noon, extended gunfights, dynamite explosions, etc. The pacing is what you would call slow if you don’t like the movie, deliberate if you do. And underlying all if it is a mysteriousness regarding how things happen, why they happen, who they happen to, and whether anything that any single character did could have prevented any of it.

Mortensen stars as Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant who ends up as the sheriff of a small town in the American West. He lives in a tiny cabin in canyon. I won’t tell you exactly where the movie begins or ends because it’s nonlinear, and describing things in order of a linear timeline would give a false impression of the movie and spoil some pretty important things. Suffice to say that he goes to San Francisco and meets Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), a French Canadian flower seller, and takes her back to his cabin, where she overcomes her disappointment at his bare bones lifestyle and tries to build a life for them and the son they will eventually raise together. 

At the same time, the movie returns to the aforementioned town, which is controlled by an arrogant businessman named Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), his violent, entitled son, Weston (Solly McLeod), and the town mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), who controls most of the local real estate, plus the bank. There’s tension surrounding the ownership of a saloon that’s tended by an eloquent barkeep-manager named Alan Kendall (W. Earl Brown). A shootout depicted early in the movie passes the saloon into the hands of the Jeffries family. Vivienne ends up working there. Weston takes a fancy to her, and doesn’t respond well to being told he can’t have her.

I mentioned earlier that this is a nonlinear movie and I’m mentioning it again here just in case you think there’s any standard sense of cause-and-effect in how I’m describing what happens. Mortensen’s script deliberately confounds the way our moviegoing brains usually work in these kinds of films. He starts near the end of his story and moves from the present tense into different parts of the past as needed.

There are also flashbacks to Vivienne’s childhood, wherein she lost her father to war against the English—a trauma that sparks a dream or fantasy about a knight in shining armor appearing before her in a forest. This image connects to the midsection of the movie, which is where Holger impulsively decides to enlist in the Union army to go off and fight against slavery and earn a promised enlistment payment, leaving Vivienne all alone in that tiny house in the canyon. This might strike contemporary viewers as a casually callous thing to do, but it’s the kind of thing that happened plenty back then, and that tends to be described in family histories with a simple sentence like, “Then he went to fight in the war and came home a year later.” 

The writing and acting of all the characters is intelligent and measured. You get a sense of a complete person who lived a long and full life offscreen even when you’re observing a character who only has a few judiciously chosen moments, such as Brown’s character, or a judge played by Ray McKinnon who presides over the trial of a citizen wrongly accused of a horrible crime, or a reverend played by veteran character actor John Getz (of “Blood Simple” and “The Fly”) who oversees a hanging. (Brown, Dillahunt and McKinnon were all on the HBO Western “Deadwood,” a go-to casting resource for this type of project.) 

None of the characters quite unveil themselves as you might expect. Holger initially comes across as a Clint Eastwood strong-silent he-man archetype, but he’s less decisive and more sensitive and learned than that. We often see him reading books or writing in a journal or on parchment. He dotes on Little Vincent (Atlas Green), his son with Vivienne, with a sensitivity and physical warmth that’s unusual in male-dominated films like this. His sense of honor and his relationship to the Westerns hero code that’s usually summed up as “doing what a man’s gotta do” is complicated as well. Olsen makes a lot of decisions that would result in negative comments on audience preview cards at a focus group screening (hard to imagine Mortensen doing one) because they are, to say the least, not things a typical Western action hero would do. They’re more like what a real person with a complicated psychology would do—things he might regret in hindsight. 

Krieps, who broke out with “Phantom Thread,” is the true star of this movie, even though it’s bracketed by Mortensen’s character riding out on a long journey. She’s the only character who gets flashbacks and dreams. She threads the needle of making her character seem self-assured, tough, and self-respecting yet never anachronistically “feminist,” in the contrived, phony way that a lot of period pieces feel obligated to write female characters of earlier times. Though unassuming in how she applies technique, Krieps is a deep and substantive film star, in the tradition of actresses from earlier eras like Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman. She makes a connection with the viewer. You can feel the hope drain from Vivienne when she keeps a stiff upper lip during awful experiences that she has no control over. But you also feel the resolve when she makes the best of a bad situation, and the excitement that blossoms in her when she’s treated as a person of value.

Not too many filmmakers have ever made movies like this, and when you do come across one (such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” or the Charlton Heston movie “Will Penny”, or “Deadwood”, or the 1970s movie “The Emigrants“) it stands out, in part because it avoids the predicable, ritualized high points that the genre is built on, and instead concentrates on significant moments of interaction between characters who do not have a 20th or 21st mindset superimposed on them, and as a result remain slightly at a remove from us throughout, and feel more real because of that.

The movie also has a genuinely cinematic instinct for when to linger on a moment and when to cut around it or allude to it as something that occurred offscreen. A lot of the longer scenes are just interactions between the film’s two romantic leads, who have a pleasing banter but derive a lot of their chemistry from looking with silent love or longing at each other. You almost never get to see material of this sort play out at length in a film set in the American West. 

Mortensen is 65 now, three years older than Eastwood when he made “Unforgiven,” and the entertainment industry is even less hospitable to Westerns now than it was three-plus decades ago, so it’s tough to imagine him making more movies like this one. But he might turn out to be one of the great Western directors if he did. 

One of my great great great grandfathers fought for the Union and survived the Battle of Antietam. After his infantry unit was wiped out, he survived by crawling under a heap of corpses and staying there for two days. As a child, I often found myself thinking about a person doing what he did and then going on to live a normal life, or whatever was classified as normal in the late 1800s. I thought about him again watching Viggo Mortensen’s film “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” a movie that injects the sorts of monumental moments of suffering and violence that you’re used to seeing in more traditional, action-oriented Westerns into a tale that is mainly interested in the relationship between a man, a woman, and a child, and the intrigue among various characters who live in the nearest small town.  Written, directed and scored by Mortensen (in his second venture behind the camera, following the contemporary family drama “Falling”), and set before and during the US Civil War, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” has scenes and reminiscent of films and TV shows that would probably be classified more as historical dramas with Western flavoring rather than straight-up Westerns. There’s a sadistic psychopath who dresses in black, some rich men who lord their power over a Southwestern town, a goodhearted and soft-spoken sheriff, his steely wife, their beautiful, innocent son, and other variations on types that you tend to encounter in movies set during this period of US history. There is savage violence of various kinds, and it’s presented realistically and unsparingly, except for one very cruel act that’s kept mainly offscreen.  But there are no stagecoach or train robberies, quick-draws at high noon, extended gunfights, dynamite explosions, etc. The pacing is what you would call slow if you don’t like the movie, deliberate if you do. And underlying all if it is a mysteriousness regarding how things happen, why they happen, who they happen to, and whether anything that any single character did could have prevented any of it. Mortensen stars as Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant who ends up as the sheriff of a small town in the American West. He lives in a tiny cabin in canyon. I won’t tell you exactly where the movie begins or ends because it’s nonlinear, and describing things in order of a linear timeline would give a false impression of the movie and spoil some pretty important things. Suffice to say that he goes to San Francisco and meets Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), a French Canadian flower seller, and takes her back to his cabin, where she overcomes her disappointment at his bare bones lifestyle and tries to build a life for them and the son they will eventually raise together.  At the same time, the movie returns to the aforementioned town, which is controlled by an arrogant businessman named Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), his violent, entitled son, Weston (Solly McLeod), and the town mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), who controls most of the local real estate, plus the bank. There’s tension surrounding the ownership of a saloon that’s tended by an eloquent barkeep-manager named Alan Kendall (W. Earl Brown). A shootout depicted early in the movie passes the saloon into the hands of the Jeffries family. Vivienne ends up working there. Weston takes a fancy to her, and doesn’t respond well to being told he can’t have her. I mentioned earlier that this is a nonlinear movie and I’m mentioning it again here just in case you think there’s any standard sense of cause-and-effect in how I’m describing what happens. Mortensen’s script deliberately confounds the way our moviegoing brains usually work in these kinds of films. He starts near the end of his story and moves from the present tense into different parts of the past as needed. There are also flashbacks to Vivienne’s childhood, wherein she lost her father to war against the English—a trauma that sparks a dream or fantasy about a knight in shining armor appearing before her in a forest. This image connects to the midsection of the movie, which is where Holger impulsively decides to enlist in the Union army to go off and fight against slavery and earn a promised enlistment payment, leaving Vivienne all alone in that tiny house in the canyon. This might strike contemporary viewers as a casually callous thing to do, but it’s the kind of thing that happened plenty back then, and that tends to be described in family histories with a simple sentence like, “Then he went to fight in the war and came home a year later.”  The writing and acting of all the characters is intelligent and measured. You get a sense of a complete person who lived a long and full life offscreen even when you’re observing a character who only has a few judiciously chosen moments, such as Brown’s character, or a judge played by Ray McKinnon who presides over the trial of a citizen wrongly accused of a horrible crime, or a reverend played by veteran character actor John Getz (of “Blood Simple” and “The Fly”) who oversees a hanging. (Brown, Dillahunt and McKinnon were all on the HBO Western “Deadwood,” a go-to casting resource for this type of project.)  None of the characters quite unveil themselves as you might expect. Holger initially comes across as a Clint Eastwood strong-silent he-man archetype, but he’s less decisive and more sensitive and learned than that. We often see him reading books or writing in a journal or on parchment. He dotes on Little Vincent (Atlas Green), his son with Vivienne, with a sensitivity and physical warmth that’s unusual in male-dominated films like this. His sense of honor and his relationship to the Westerns hero code that’s usually summed up as “doing what a man’s gotta do” is complicated as well. Olsen makes a lot of decisions that would result in negative comments on audience preview cards at a focus group screening (hard to imagine Mortensen doing one) because they are, to say the least, not things a typical Western action hero would do. They’re more like what a real person with a complicated psychology would do—things he might regret in hindsight.  Krieps, who broke out with “Phantom Thread,” is the true star of this movie, even though it’s bracketed by Mortensen’s character riding out on a long journey. She’s the only character who gets flashbacks and dreams. She threads the needle of making her character seem self-assured, tough, and self-respecting yet never anachronistically “feminist,” in the contrived, phony way that a lot of period pieces feel obligated to write female characters of earlier times. Though unassuming in how she applies technique, Krieps is a deep and substantive film star, in the tradition of actresses from earlier eras like Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman. She makes a connection with the viewer. You can feel the hope drain from Vivienne when she keeps a stiff upper lip during awful experiences that she has no control over. But you also feel the resolve when she makes the best of a bad situation, and the excitement that blossoms in her when she’s treated as a person of value. Not too many filmmakers have ever made movies like this, and when you do come across one (such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” or the Charlton Heston movie “Will Penny”, or “Deadwood”, or the 1970s movie “The Emigrants”) it stands out, in part because it avoids the predicable, ritualized high points that the genre is built on, and instead concentrates on significant moments of interaction between characters who do not have a 20th or 21st mindset superimposed on them, and as a result remain slightly at a remove from us throughout, and feel more real because of that. The movie also has a genuinely cinematic instinct for when to linger on a moment and when to cut around it or allude to it as something that occurred offscreen. A lot of the longer scenes are just interactions between the film’s two romantic leads, who have a pleasing banter but derive a lot of their chemistry from looking with silent love or longing at each other. You almost never get to see material of this sort play out at length in a film set in the American West.  Mortensen is 65 now, three years older than Eastwood when he made “Unforgiven,” and the entertainment industry is even less hospitable to Westerns now than it was three-plus decades ago, so it’s tough to imagine him making more movies like this one. But he might turn out to be one of the great Western directors if he did.  Read More