A tender love story and a subversive western: NPR

Viggo Mortensen plays Holger Olsen in The Dead Don't Hurt.

Viggo Mortensen plays Holger Olsen The dead don't hurt.

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One of its many charms The dead don't hurt is that you can't immediately tell whether it's trying to be an old-fashioned Western or a revisionist approach. It has many familiar genre signposts: men riding horses through rugged landscapes, a bloody gunfight in a saloon, and two actors, Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps, who bring traditional movie star charisma to a tender love story.

But at times the film feels casually subversive. The first of those riders we see is not a cowboy, but a knight in shining armor – a figure from a child's fantastic dream. And then there's the way the film plays with time: that shooting, which technically takes place at the end of the story, is instead shown at the very beginning.

Mortensen, who wrote and directed the film, trusts that we know the Western well enough by now that he can play with the form without losing our attention. He doesn't try to radically reinvent the genre, but he uses its conventions to tell a different and politically resonant kind of story.

It is especially significant that the two main characters are both immigrants. Mortensen stars as Holger Olsen, a wandering, Danish-born carpenter who finds himself in San Francisco in the 1860s. There he meets Vivienne, a French-Canadian florist, played by Krieps, who is as independent-minded as he is.

Vicky Krieps is a French-Canadian florist in The Dead Don't Hurt.

Vicky Krieps is a French-Canadian florist in The dead don't hurt.

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The two fall in love and Vivienne moves with Olsen to a dusty Nevada town called Elk Flats. Because the story is told out of sequence, we already know that some bad things are coming, but for now the atmosphere is light and even comical as Vivienne grumblingly sets about cleaning up their wooden hut.

Vivienne doesn't like domestic confinement, and soon she gets a job bartending at the salon, where she attracts the attention of one of the city's dirtiest customers: Weston Jeffries, played by Solly McLeod, the brutish son of a wealthy farmer . Meanwhile, with the Civil War raging, Olsen decides to join the Union army, much to Vivienne's anger.

One of the best things about it The dead don't hurt is that it honors Vivienne's courage and abilities while recognizing how alone and vulnerable she is in this hostile, male-dominated environment. A few months after Olsen leaves, Vivienne gives birth to a baby boy under circumstances shrouded in mystery. Years later, Olsen returns to Vivienne and the child, but it is not an entirely happy reunion and they face a grim reckoning with the city and some of its most corrupt individuals.

Mortensen made his feature film debut with the 2020 drama Traps, in which he played a gay man trying to care for his sick, bigoted father. Of The dead don't hurt, he uses a story set in the past to comment on issues that still concern us in the present, from male violence against women to the complexities of immigrants' relationships with their adopted countries. Even as Vivienne embraces her life as an American colonist, she proudly clings to her French-Canadian roots, sometimes dreamily recalling the stories her mother told her about Joan of Arc—an obvious hero for a woman who tries to pave her own unorthodox path through life.

As a director, Mortensen handles the material with quiet assurance; even as he cuts back and forth in time, he never loses the storyline. He also gives a softly grounded role as Olsen, a decent man who sometimes makes impulsive, reckless decisions.

But this is ultimately Krieps's film. She has often played women who come up against their forbidden positions in life, in dramas like Phantom Thread and Corsage. Here she captures the indomitable spirit of a woman navigating her way in a foreign land, determined to find and cherish beauty even under the harshest of circumstances.

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