Two pioneers fight for their lives and their love on the American frontier during the Civil War.

Chuck Says:

Westerns have promoted a specific form of heroism over the years. Whether it’s setting out into an unknown land to establish a new life, fighting hostiles, or facing down the bad guys at high noon, the predominant image is that of an indominable man, overcoming insurmountable odds as they strive to achieve their personal manifest destiny.  In its own small way, Viggo Mortensen’s modest “The Dead Don’t Hurt” attempts to provide another perspective, putting its female protagonist front and center, focusing on the unsung trials she and her brethren had to face. To be sure, the script still contains its fair share of genre tropes, yet by including an additional point of view, the result is a richer, more introspective genre entry.

Mortensen, who also wrote the screenplay, employs a sliding storyline in which scenes of the present alternate with those of the past. Although initially off-putting the result is a story that’s far more emotionally resonant than standard oaters. Olson (Mortensen) has immigrated to America and has built a good life for himself. Settling in southern Nevada, he has a small house on the outskirts of the nearest town but has a wandering spirit. As such, he gets the urge to travel about and during a stay in San Francisco, he meets Vivienne (Vicky Krieps), a fiercely independent woman who suffers no fools. She sees straight away that they are kindred spirits and agrees to marry him.

Needless to say, she’s less than impressed when she first sees the modest, remote home where they will be living. And just as they have settled into a routine, Olson informs her that he will be enlisting in the Union Army, enticed by a $100 signing bonus and the belief that fighting for the end of slavery is just. Left on her own, Vivienne is forced to eke out a living on their hardscrabble farm. Looking for employment, she heads to Elk Flats, where she finds a job in the local saloon. And while this helps her get by, she comes to the attention of Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod), an unstable, violent young man whose father Alfred (Garret Dillahunt), a powerful rancher, enables his son by making sure the local law enforcement looks the other way when he steps over the line. Having Mayor Schiller (Danny Huston) as a business partner helps.

There’s very little in the way of artifice to the film, both visually and in the way the cast approach their roles. Filmed in Mexico, there’s a stripped down, dusty look to everything, as if the elements are constantly on the verge of reclaiming what’s been taken by these intruders. Few frills are evident and while he doesn’t dive deep into the day-to-day machinations of surviving in the wilderness of the 19th century southwest, Mortensen underscores how difficult this life must have been.

And while the raw production design helps ground the story, it’s the performances between the two leads that provide the film with its heart. Mortensen and Krieps are masterful in their subtle approaches. What with both characters being repressed, they convey their thoughts and emotions in a quiet manner, implying rather than stating what is on their minds and in their hearts. Their attraction to one another is evident as is their strength.  It’s to Mortensen’s credit that he often steps to the side, allowing Krieps to shine, her Vivienne the personification of tenacity and strength, a performance in which little seems to be done but much is communicated.

The film stumbles a bit when it focuses on the familiar. The requisite villain is far too broadly drawn, while the solution as to how to deal with him is obvious, but never taken. Gunfights take place, chases ensue, and corruption is exposed. Mortensen knows he’s traveling in familiar narrative territory in these moments and at least these scenes are rendered sharply and not dwelled upon. And while “Dead” leaves the viewer with a portrait of courage, it comes from a non-traditional source, this revisionist effort shining a light on those settlers who have been too often taken for granted and relegated to the background.

3 Stars

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