Thrilling frontier Western “The Dead Don’t Hurt” starring Viggo Mortensen and Vicky Krieps was inspired by Mortensen’s mother; opens nationwide, in theatres May 31

By Oliver Carnay

Written and directed by Academy Award®-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen, The Dead Don’t Hurt is a story of star-crossed lovers on the western U.S. frontier in the 1860s.  Both a tragic love story and a nuanced depiction of the conflict between revenge and forgiveness, the film is a portrait of a passionate woman determined to stand up for herself in an unforgiving world dominated by ruthless men. 

Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) is a fiercely independent woman who embarks on a relationship with Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Viggo Mortensen). After meeting Olsen in San Francisco, she agrees to travel with him to his home near the quiet town of Elk Flats, Nevada, where they start a life together. The outbreak of the civil war separates them when Olsen makes a fateful decision to fight for the Union. This leaves Vivienne to fend for herself in a place controlled by corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston) and his unscrupulous business partner, powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). Alfred’s violent, wayward son Weston (Solly McLeod) aggressively pursues Vivienne, who is determined to resist his unwanted advances. When Olsen returns from the war, he and Vivienne must confront and make peace with the person each has become. 
The Dead Don’t Hurt marks Mortensen’s second outing as writer-director after his highly acclaimed feature debut, 2020’s “Falling.”  The film reunites with key members of Falling’s creative team: cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (As in Heaven), production designers Carol Spier (Eastern Promises) and Jason Clarke (Black Mirror), and costume designer Anne Dixon (The Song of Names).
Mortensen’s film was inspired by his mother: “This was a story that arose from an image of my mother.  I have illustrated books from the 1930s that she used to read when she was a little girl, stories about knights, medieval adventure stories.  She had been raised near maple forests in the northeast of the U.S., near the Canadian border, and I had the image of her as a child running around in those forests, imagining she was in one of the stories she had read in those old books.  That was the initial image I had as I sat down to begin writing the screenplay for The Dead Don’t Hurt during the COVID lockdown in the spring of 2020.”  At that point, Mortensen asked himself what might have happened to the woman that the little girl becomes and he admits that he was somewhat surprised by the path the story took.  “I thought, well, let’s begin the story when the girl has become a woman at the end of her life,” he says.  I’m not sure why, but I decided to make a journey as a writer to learn how that care-free little girl got there.
With a 19th century setting, the film has the classic western look, but for Mortensen, the story defies easy categorisation.  “It is a very particular sort of wester,” he says.  “The Dead Don’t Hurt” seemed to me to have the potential to become an unusual love story within the context of that genre, which I have always been fond of, but it clearly breaks with some of the conventional archetypes that have been used to depict female roles in that kind of movie.”  
Producer Regina Solorzano (Triangle of Sadness, Berman Island) found herself moved by Mortensen’s quietly revolutionary screenplay and especially its relatable, resilient female protagonist.  Partnering with Mortensen and renowned independent film producer Jeremy Thomas, Solorzano was eager to bring The Dead Don’t Hurt to the screen through Mexican production company, Talipot Studio where she is currently CEO.  “It is a story that falls within the genre of classic westerns, but this movie can be viewed on many different levels,” says Solorzano.  “It employs that surface appearance of a western to speak of a revolutionized world, of a woman who, to me, seems to be quite ahead of her time, with a different perspective of what femininity is, what the role of a woman is.  She’s someone who is not in service of the existing social structures, and elects to be with a man who has the humility and capacity, despite his own patriarchal code, to respect that.”
Mortensen’s co-actors had similarly kind words — “He’s very attentive, loving, gentle spirit,” says Danny Huston. “But he also has very clear intentions as to how he wants the scenes to play out.  So, it’s a combination of feeling free but also knowing what your parameters are.
Filmed largely on location in Durango, Mexico, which had hosted many western productions, especially throughout the 1960s and ’70’s.  A few scenes were also shot in Eastern and Western Canada.  “We really liked the state of Durango, as it had the variety of landscapes we were trying to find for this movie — the high country, the forests, the deserts, the canyons,” Mortensen says.  “We adapted the area to our specific purposes in some instances, of course, but the landscapes were generally ideal just as we found them.”
“The Dead Don’t Hurt” runs 129 minutes, with an R rating (for violence), some sexuality and language.  Opening in theaters nationwide May 31, 2024.