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‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ review: Dir. Viggo Mortensen (2024)

Once upon a time the Western had Hollywood in a stranglehold. Much like our modern day obsession with superhero stories, Westerns were once the most popular genres, and cinemas were littered with new offerings. Over the years though the genre has for one reason or another, fallen out of favour. It’s sad to see a once thriving genre put out to pasture, but every couple of years a new director comes along to revive it, the latest being actor-turned-director Viggo Mortensen, with his film The Dead Don’t Hurt.

When many think of a Western they recall the iconic movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Films with one man pit against a never ending army of bandits that he must stop to save his home. They famously feature the big duel at high noon with a tense gun draw forming the climax. This formulaic story structure is likely one of the reasons that audiences began to fall out of love with the Western. With The Dead Don’t Hurt, Mortensen moves away from this pattern. Fibres of these expected elements remain, but are utilised more as shading for the story rather than formation. 

Told concurrently across two points in time, The Dead Don’t Hurt joins Mortensen’s Olsen in the process of leaving his life behind, whilst at the same time explaining how he and his lover Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) came to reside in town. The blending of the two time periods takes a couple of scenes to fully register, but once acclimated the viewer can settle in to watch this very compelling story of love and anguish. 

Although Mortensen directs, writes, stars, and even composes The Dead Don’t Hurt, this film very much belongs to Vivienne and Krieps. For years women in Westerns were either the harlot or the damsel, and whilst some sought to change the dynamic, few have managed to be as accomplished as in The Dead Don’t Hurt. Despite the time period and the rancid gender inequality, Vivienne is an independent and spirited woman. When first introduced she is being courted by an English nobleman, a man who expects her to be his pretty accessory. But Vivienne has other plans. The meeting of her and Olsen feels destined with the pair being kindred wild spirits. That Vivienne is treated with respect and as an equal, if not better, by Olsen, is mirrored in the dynamic between Mortensen and Krieps. Mortensen places the camera firmly on Krieps and allows her the space to fully inhabit Vivienne and her experiences. 

Krieps is sensational in the role, and Vivienne’s more modern attitudes allow the viewer to connect with her. Were there to be a reveal that the film was actually set today, Vivienne would not feel out of place. This quality also enables the issues that the film raises, and the troubling experiences that Vivienne has to endure, to resonate further. Although set in the often romanticised 1860s, Mortensen expertly demonstrates that as a society, modern man has not moved too far from their dark past, making this a story that is still hugely relevant in today’s climate. As Vivienne, Krieps has to access some dark emotions, but her steadfast stoic performance importantly means that she is never viewed as a victim. Instead she is a ferocious woman who commands the attention of everyone on both sides of the screen.  

Mortensen is in fine form as always, but he is careful to never overshadow Krieps and her fantastic performance. Like Vivienne, Olsen is a complex character, but he remains more of an enigma, which helps bond the viewer with Vivienne over him. Surrounding both of them are a fantastic bill of character actors including Garret Dillahunt, Danny Huston, and Alex Breaux who help bring to life various stock Western characters. Of the townsfolk, it is Solly McLeod as the villainous Weston Jeffries who catches the eye. His permanence is laced with menace and every time he appears on screen the audience is just waiting for his temper to snap and someone ending up injured or worse. McLeod’s ability to convey malice is exceptional and the scenes between him and Krieps are especially fraught and electrically charged. 

Housing this complicated story of love, hate, and everything in between, are vast sweeping landscapes that effortlessly transport the viewer back in time. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind beautifully captures the vibrancy and wildness of nature whilst giving the dustier settings more life than one would ordinarily think. Accompanying both the visuals and the story is an authentic Western score that straddles the line between epic romance and wild west showdown perfectly. This is Mortensen’s third time composing for a feature and he’s clearly put into practice what he has learned from previous efforts, crafting a wonderful companion piece that pushes the more emotional aspects of the film. 

Though not the tried and tested Western of old, Mortensen is careful to pay respect to the genre. At the same time, The Dead Don’t Hurt forges its own path of independence and in doing so helps capture a more modern audience. Not likely to kickstart a new wave of Westerns, The Dead Don’t Hurt still does plenty to satisfy lifelong fans whilst also managing to sway the odd Western naysayer. 

The Dead Don’t Hurt

Kat Hughes

The Dead Don’t Hurt


The Dead Don’t Hurt is a modern feeling Western that pays respect to a well worn genre whilst also ensuring it stands on its own two feet. Viggo Mortensen has crafted a beautiful piece of work that is driven by an immensely compelling performance from Vicky Krieps. 


The Dead Don’t Hurt arrives in UK cinemas from Friday 7th June 2024.

Kat Hughes is a UK born film critic and interviewer who has a passion for horror films. An editor for THN, Kat is also a Rotten Tomatoes Approved Critic. She has bylines with Ghouls Magazine, Arrow Video, Film Stories, Certified Forgotten and FILMHOUNDS and has had essays published in home entertainment releases by Vinegar Syndrome and Second Sight. When not writing about horror, Kat hosts micro podcast Movies with Mummy along with her five-year-old daughter.


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