I remember hearing Viggo Mortensen on an episode of Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin where he came off as the rare combination of pretentious but likable. A man who carried himself as an intelligent, soft-spoken guy who liked arthouse movies and votes Green Party, he had just the right amount of movie-star charisma to pull off his slightly self-satisfied air. So essentially I want to root for the guy, especially when tackling moviemaking.
For a second I thought he was capitalizing on it in his second directorial effort. The opening two shots of The Dead Don’t Hurt showed some promise: 1) a man riding horseback in knight’s armor, followed by 2) a long take fixating on a dying Vicky Krieps’ face. From there I thought Mortensen was maybe, as director, smuggling a surrealism and slow cinema inspired by collaborator Lisandro Alonso into TIFF-premiere filler. Yet that mystery and formal precision soon ends. A dull brown sheen applied to mostly conventional film language, Dead at its worst made me come to understand why a lot of people don’t like westerns and associate it with scenes of men reciting uninteresting dialogue in drab locations. There was such a degree of dullness to this project that I started to fixate on things such as: Is one of the aging bartenders played by veteran character actor Richard Riehle?, or What is the legacy of fellow star-turned-director Joseph Gordon Levitt’s 2013 film Don Jon?
This is certainly patient storytelling, but there’s a difference when that doesn’t really lead anywhere in terms of stirring character development or eye-opening observation. At least it boasts a fresh idea for the genre by dramatizing a love story between two immigrants: Holger (Mortensen) from Denmark and Vivienne (Krieps) from Quebec. Both drawn from their homes to the booming economy of 19th-century San Francisco (though he tries to justify it in his own garbled poetry of “I just wanted to see the end of the world”), their courtship is somewhat bumpy, as Holger’s masculine tendencies take a while to win Vivienne over. Yet he’s far from the worst guy around, as the virus of Americanism is manifested in the western staple of the corrupt small-town mayor (Danny Huston) and his bad-seed son (Solly McLeod). Their ways rear an ugly head when Holger volunteers to fight in the Civil War and Vivienne has to turn to working at the saloon: a sad tale as old as time that women who serve drinks will more often than not be on the receiving end of bad men’s attention.
Though The Dead Don’t Hurt gradually becomes Vivienne’s story as Holger disappears to fight, his presence still defines the film in strange ways. While Mortensen certainly looks younger than 65 and I’m not one of those people who busts out a calculator to determine what is or isn’t an appropriate age-gap relationship, Mortensen casting himself opposite Krieps in the romantic (even action hero) lead role he’s clearly too old for (beyond maybe financing requirements) reeks of ego. Maybe this wouldn’t matter as much if he dramatized these proceedings in a way more compelling than just its interesting conceptual ideas of immigrants in the west going through the passage of time together.
The Dead Don’t Hurt premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.