Credit: HanWay Films / Shout! Studios

Glasgow Film Festival 2024: The Dead Don’t Hurt

By Caitlin MacDonald

Viggo Mortensen’s second endeavour as director has landed him and his film at the Glasgow Film Festival.

A woman on her deathbed sheds her last tear as the light leaves her eyes. A man – presumably her husband – checks for her pulse and upon finding none, closes her eyes and turns to look out the window. Cut to a man robbing a saloon, shooting patrons and staff alike. When confronted by the town’s deputy, he shoots him point-blank and steals his horse. As we watch the deputy bleed out, a title card in bold red letters fades in – The Dead Don’t Hurt.

Viggo Mortensen’s second whirl in the director’s chair, the period piece The Dead Don’t Hurt (in which he is also the writer, producer, and composer of), is about the eternal pushing and pulling of life and ultimately, how war destroys all, how war comes home. After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2023, The Dead Don’t Hurt and Mortensen himself are in Glasgow for the 20th Glasgow Film Festival, where The Dead Don’t Hurt is selected for the festival’s Audience Award.

Viggo Mortensen himself stars as the lead in this Western as Holger, a Danish immigrant who has found himself in Antebellum period San Francisco. It is by the port, with the large ships and markets, where he encounters Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) – a French Canadian who is equal measures adventurous and rebellious, as she swats away hordes of noble English suitors. The two – both outcasts in their own ways – find a bond in each other’s company. Eventually, they develop a romantic relationship and ride out into the great American wilderness where they find a little shack nestled between ridges of thick mountains. It is here where they settle – Vivienne comments on the lack of greenery and swears at Holger in French- but this shack is the beginning of their life together. In the neighbouring town, Holger picks up work building barns for wealthy landowners, such as rancher Alfred Jefferies (Garret Dillahunt) while Vivienne picks up part-time work in a local saloon.

However, with the encroaching Civil War looming on the continent, Holger’s heroism and moral righteousness flares up. He decides to enlist with the Union, much to Vivienne’s dismay and anger. Through flashbacks, we see scenes of a perfectly quiet wilderness, rich with reds and oranges and yellow- undoubtedly Canada. We see Vivienne as a young girl – obsessed with fairies and Joan of Arc – as well as the hole her father leaves in the family when he declares he will leave to help French forces fight the English. Her father leaves off in a canoe, across the river and young Vivienne watches, knowing he will never return. Despite her protests and tears, Holger departs to go fight, leaving Vivienne all alone.

This is a Western by all accounts but don’t be fooled – the gunslinging action is kept to an absolute minimum. We never see Holger at war, shooting Confederate soldiers left and right. This isn’t your John Wayne sort of Western, where we watch duel after duel and sharpshooting cowboys riding off into the sun. In The Dead Don’t Hurt, the real violence is the monsters that live among us. As we watch Vivienne continue through the motions of everyday life, trying to get by without Holger near, we witness her increasing involvement with Jefferies’ violent son, Weston. We all know what happens next. When Holger returns from war, a little older and a little hairier, both he and Vivienne must come to terms with what has changed in the other’s absence.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is a little gem of a film, an oasis in the desert, and a testament to Mortensen’s love of Westerns and cinema as a whole. Coupled nicely with the chemistry he stokes with Krieps and the film’s long runtime, in more ways than one The Dead Don’t Hurt is a complete breath of fresh air that will make you want to run out into the wilderness and beyond.


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