By Yun-hua Chen.

I think that, in some sense, forgiveness is more important than revenge. There’s a desire for revenge…. That’s sort of instant gratification for certain kinds of movie fans, but it’s not very interesting or realistic.”

The Dead Don’t Hurt, a unique Western imbued with Viggo Mortensen’s distinct flair, showcases his well-known zeal for the genre. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1860s and the American Civil War, Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant portrayed by Mortensen, crosses paths with the fiercely independent Vivienne Le Coudy, a French-Canadian who resolves to forge a life with him in Nevada. Their home is a shack in a quiet valley outside a town bullied by the nefarious Weston (Solly McLeod), supported by his unprincipled entrepreneur father who maintains a corrupt alliance with the mayor. When Olsen enlists to join the Union’s fight against slavery, Vivienne finds herself compelled to manage on her own – doing so with a mixture of reluctance and shrewed determination.

In stark contrast to the unambiguously vile Weston, a brutal psychopath, rapist, and murderer, the “good” characters exhibit profound humanity and nuance. Mortensen and Krieps exude a tender, harmonious chemistry, while also portraying headstrong individuals, each with their own vulnerabilities. They embody heroism not only in their bravery but also in the most day-to-day manner, in their fidelity to personal truth and mutual authenticity, even amid indecision and fear. While The Dead Don’t Cry is adeptly positioned within the Western genre, delving into both the tangible and the psychological frontiers expanded by myriad forces, it simultaneously serves as a narrative of the relentless strife within these territories. “I never wanted to be saved,” declared Vivienne Le Coudy.  In the world crafted by Viggo Mortensen, the woman character, divergent from Western conventions, is strong for her resilience and the capacity to persevere even though she doesn’t possess the physical prowess to combat villainy.

The Dead Don't Hurt (2023) - IMDb

Meanwhile, The Dead Don’t Hurt self-consciously rejects linear storytelling and weaves temporal layers with subtlety, composing a suspenseful, enigmatic mosaic for audiences to decipher. This labyrinth of childhood trauma and violence and injustice from different eras and for different reasons, though somewhat disorienting at the very beginning, gradually reveals itself as cleverly fitting and reminiscent of the best days of Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Multi-talented Viggo Mortensen is the director, writer, actor, producer and composer of this film that resonates with pitch-perfect tone and tempo, where even the cinematic space becomes a narrative entity. It stands as a tribute to the pioneer spirit, an era that seeks reconciliation and co-existence, and a remarkable second outing for Mortensen. In a conversation with Film International at the Luxembourg City Film Festival, he discusses his approach to character development, spatial use, genre and music composition.

The character Vivienne Le Coudy played by Vicky Krieps is quite an unusual female character in the genre of Western, which is a delight to see. She seems to live among a lot of different fathers and sons…

Well, it’s true, she’s in a world of men, dominated by men, but she has her own ideas even as a child. She knows herself very well. Even though she’s very much a woman from the time, she does not feel inhibited or restrained by the ideas or desires of men. She has her own ideas. So it’s true that she’s quite independent.

I started writing the story, thinking about a little girl, this image of this little girl playing in the forest, dreaming about what she might want to do, what could happen to her in her life. And the inspiration was just an idea of my mother when she was a little girl, things I know about her and the place where she grew up. So, I found a place in Canada that looked exactly like that. It was right across the border, with the same kind of trees, the same kind of hill; everything is the same, almost identical if you took a picture. And, that was the first image and then I thought, okay, I want to see the effect before the cause. So, let me go to the end of her life, work my way back and then introduce other elements. Once you understand all the pieces, I like to respect the audiences, so they can sort of make their own movie and follow what happens. Then, we concentrate on her, the end of her adult life, basically, the last few years.

Western is a genre that’s very much about territories in general, but this one has a very different sense of territories. What’s your sense of space in the genre of Westerns?

It’s true, and even in her childhood we see the father being preoccupied with the right to be where he is. And you don’t have to know a lot about the history of the Francophone population on both sides of the border of the US and Canada at that time, but there was a tension with the English who were pushing them out, basically, in some cases.

Yeah, the classic Western, which is what I hope this fits into, is generally accepted that it takes place between the beginning of the Civil War, which is 1861, and about 1890; it’s about a 30-year period, and this is early part of that classic Western period. So, it’s a time where the frontier is still open, the rule of law isn’t really applied or respected, and so it’s kind of a capitalism that is without any restraints.

And I thought it was interesting to have a story where the frontier is being pushed, a story about a woman who’s pushing her frontiers personally, you know, as a woman. I thought it was interesting to set her in that time as opposed to now. I thought it could make a sort of story like this now, just would be different in circumstances.

The Dead Don't Hurt' Review: Vicky Krieps in Viggo Mortensen Western

So, that’s what I did. I like Westerns. When I was a boy, they were still showing some Westerns in cinemas. There were several TV series of Westerns, and it was not uncommon for boys like me to be able to go to the movie theater and see a Western. Whereas now, it’s not normal, you know, unless your parents are fans of Westerns and they watch them at home. I think little boys or girls nowadays don’t necessarily watch them, unless they somehow become cinephiles or something. So, I liked them, and I grew up with horses when I was a little boy. I like all that aspect of landscapes, the physical aspect of Westerns. And I tried to make sure of the photograph and ideally to make a movie that was well written, faithfully shot and efficiently directed. That was the idea.

The one important difference is, of course, that we concentrate on a female principal character. And, when her male partner goes off to war, we stay with her. We don’t even watch him leave. He leaves, and we don’t see him for a long time. So, that makes it quite different. But otherwise, I wanted to look and feel like the best of the classic Westerns. There’s a lot of bad ones, like in any genre, but the best ones are quite beautiful. It seems very simple in terms of the look, but to make something simple, you have to work hard.

What makes it different is also the concept of revenge. I feel like it’s very much anti-revenge in the film compared to classic Westerns…

I think that, in some sense, forgiveness is more important than revenge. There’s a desire for revenge. There’s pride and there’s other things. In subtle ways, she makes a decision at one point that she will not be pushed out of town or forced to leave. She’s like, I will stay and I will do what I can, the way I want to. It’s not like a superhero movie where she’s going to get a gun and go and shoot everyone. That’s sort of instant gratification for certain kinds of movie fans, but it’s not very interesting or realistic.

In a way, what’s interesting is essentially a love story and a story about a relationship. What I like about the relationship is that there’s trust between them. They’re both stubborn. They both have their own ideas and maybe make mistakes along the way. They’re human, but they don’t lie to each other, which is unusual. I mean, he’s afraid to tell her he’s going to go to war, but he’s not lying.

So, they’re quite honest with each other. When he returns, it’s not like the classic where after you’ve gone to the war, ignore the woman and come back, she starts to cry and gives you a hug. But rather, we’ve been apart longer than we knew each other, so now what? There’s also a situation with his boy and everything, so it’s up to him. He has to either adapt and accept the situation, or it’s not going to work. She has to adapt to him being back as well. It’s not just up to him, it’s up to her as well. I think that’s clear on some level.

I think that’s beautiful that they both allow each other’s free will and that there’s mutual respect. They each have to forgive themselves and forgive the other person. I like exploring that, and I like exploring obviously, as I say, but what happens to a little girl like Vivienne when her father goes away to war? What happens to a woman like Vivienne when her partner goes away? What happens to women in general when their brothers or husbands or their sons go off to fight their masculine wars? How do they feel? That’s not usually explored.

What’s very interesting is also you delayed your screen presence. We see Vivienne’s face from the very beginning, but then you initially have your back towards the camera. The second time you appear on screen, it is also just your back. What were your considerations as director when introducing the role that you play yourself?

That’s true. I mean, I would have done the same if it were another actor. Actually originally I wasn’t supposed to play the part. I mean, the movie had to cast two principal characters to find money. I found Vicky Krieps, and I found an actor that was acceptable to the financiers. That was the way it was for months. And then, not too long before we had to go to Mexico for official pre-production and prepare for the shoot, the actor decided to do something else. That happens, you know. And so I tried to find someone else. I talked to two or three different actors. First I checked with the financiers, “I think this guy is right, would he be acceptable?” They said, “Yes, okay.” And they each liked the story, but they weren’t available. They really liked it, they liked the character, but they couldn’t do it. One of them tried, he almost could do it.

And I finally realized, okay, we’re not going to find someone. Then my co-producer said, well, maybe we’ll wait till next year when they’re available. And that worried me because I’ve been in the business for a long time, and when you wait, sometimes it never happens, you know. There’re scripts that are good but never got made because people didn’t jump on the opportunity. And so I said, I don’t want to wait. I said, well, I can rewrite it, make him older and play it myself. Well, that would work, they said. I said, I know it’s more work, but I don’t mind working hard. I just don’t want it to be a problem.

I had to check with Vicky, first of all, because she had to play opposite me. So, I asked her, and she thought it was a good idea. In fact, before I could even say it, she said, you should play it. So, well, it was kind of like the scene in the movie where I didn’t tell her I was going to go to war. I was like, well, I wanted to tell you something. She goes, do you play it? And I said, yeah, that’s what I was saying, but I have to change the script; there are some new lines where you or Weston say, you’re too old or you’re an old man or something like that. It had to be part of the relationship.

Can you maybe talk a bit about the music that you did for the film?

I did music for the first movie I directed too, Falling (2020). That one was my first movie, and it was a tricky kind of story. It took me probably four years to find the money. In the meantime, I was trying to do things. I already had a script for it, and I had the main actor. And so I was working on some ideas for music; I had not edited image of a movie before, but I hadd edited music and recorded music over the years. So, I started working on ideas for the music, which was simpler than this movie and less of it. And then I realized that it actually was helpful. When I was shooting and editing, I knew certain transitions, how I would use music to help me.

And so this one, I intentionally did it. It sounds counterintuitive, but I recorded most of the music, I mean, composed it, recorded it and mixed most of it before we shot a lot of the movie. It helped me decide the rhythm of certain scenes, how long it should last, how many shots, and what the tone, what the feeling should be from certain, not all of them, but some of them. And, because the story is nonlinear, when I’m going from different time periods and places, those transitions are really important. So, I knew that there were certain pieces of music that would be like bridges that would help you with that.

And then I played some of that music for other people working on the movie, especially a cinematographer, in order for them to understand why I wanted certain shots and some scenes. There’s not that many Westerns made, so a cinematographer was like, oh, great, we’ll be in these landscapes, and I want a big crane, and I want to do this. I said, no, no, no, I want it to be like a classic Western; you’re going to have to do some difficult shots, especially the first two scenes, but I don’t want people to be thinking about the camera. It’s not like I’m trying to reinvent the Western or do super close-ups all the time, like spaghetti Westerns. I have nothing against them. I just want to make a sort of more classic looking film. He’s like, oh, we could do this. I know we can, but we have enough to do, and I want to see the characters in the landscape. I want to see the details, what they’re doing, the objects. We have a very good art department, someone I worked with before. So I want to see it; I want to see people in their habitats.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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