A Special Kind of Beauty: Viggo Mortenson on The Dead Don’t Hurt


Set on the western U.S. frontier during the 1860s, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” follows the relationship that develops between independent French-Canadian woman Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) and Danish immigrant Holgen Olsen (Viggo Mortensen). The two meet in San Francisco, fall in love, and decide to make a new life for themselves in a small Nevada town. When the Civil War breaks out, Olden decides to fight for the Union, leaving Vivienne to make her way in a town dominated by its corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston) and powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). 

When the latter’s borderline psychotic son, Weston (Solly McLeod), begins to go after Vivienne himself and Olsen discovers what has happened when he returns from the war, it kicks off the expected array of violent retribution. But it also forces Olsen and Vivienne to come to terms with what has happened to them in the hopes of moving on.

Throughout “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and which arrives in theaters this Friday, Mortensen may sport a standard-issue cowboy chapeau, but it’s hardly the only hat that he would find himself wearing throughout its production. In addition to co-starring in the film, he directed it (his first effort since his 2020 debut “Falling”), penned the screenplay, and even composed the score. 

Recently, Mortensen, via the miracle of Zoom, sat down with RogerEbert.com to talk about the film, the ways it subverts any number of genre expectations, and how directing has affected his work as an actor. 

Throughout your career as an actor, you have appeared in several Westerns—“Hidalgo,” “Appaloosa,” “Young Guns 2.” With “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” you not only co-star, you have also written, directed and composed the score. Is this a genre you’ve always felt a particular affinity for, even before becoming an actor?

Oh, definitely. Like most kids of my generation, I grew up very early in my life seeing them. There were several series on TV, for one thing, and it wasn’t that unusual to be able to go to the movie theater once in a while and see a Western back in the early ’60s. I also grew up as a kid riding horses and imagining and fantasizing, like a lot of kids of my generation, of being a gaucho or a cowboy or even a Native American warrior. Westerns are something that I’ve always liked.

I didn’t necessarily intend to write a Western when I started writing this story. I was writing about a woman named Vivienne and her life, her childhood, and so forth. I was trying to create a woman with an independent spirit and a strong interior life. I thought it would be more of a challenge for her and a more interesting contrast to place that woman in a Western setting, a society mostly devoid of law and order and dominated by a few unscrupulous and violent men. Once I realized that it would be a Western, I enjoyed documenting everything and making sure that the look was like that of a classic Western, with the photography and getting all the historical details right—the language, the vocabulary, the architecture, the horsemanship. I really enjoyed that.

When you sat down to write the screenplay, what was the first image or idea that served as your entry point?

The first image I had when I started, having no idea where it would be going, was of a little girl running around in a forest with maples, black oaks, and walnuts in the Northeast United States—a place very much like where my mother grew up. She inspired this character and her personality—someone with a rich imagination, a very stubborn and independent-minded girl. Then I asked myself who she would be as a woman and kept writing. Then, I decided to place this in the 19th century on the Western frontier. 

While “The Dead Don’t Hurt” certainly has the physical look of a classic example of Western filmmaking, it subverts genre expectations in several ways, from the characters and thematic concerns to the flashback/flash-forward structure you employ.

I agree that there are things that make it different, even though it does fall visually into the traditions of classic Westerns. Just because you have an ordinary female character being your central figure, that already makes it different. The fact that your two leads are not Anglo-Saxon Americans who have English as their first language, that is different. I thought it was important to be as historically accurate with the decor and the lamps and the clothing and other details but to have a cultural and linguistic diversity to the story and racial diversity. You do see Mexican and Chinese characters in other movies, and in “Heaven’s Gate,” you had Eastern European characters and languages. Still, you don’t normally have the leads be anything other than Anglo-Saxon American characters. 

As I wrote the story, I enjoyed getting to know Vivienne through that structure. I also like, as a spectator, when I am ahead of the characters—I like watching movies that work that way. There are several instances where we know a lot more than Vivienne does, like when Weston visits her when she is gardening—we know he is a vicious killer from what we have already seen, but she doesn’t know that. She knows he’s a bit full of himself from her encounters with him in the saloon, so she keeps him at arm’s length to be polite but has no idea of what we know. When she says, “Would you like some cold mint tea?” you’re thinking, “No, don’t do that!” Also, I don’t like people dying, but for the purposes of the story, a bunch of people die violently at the beginning of the story. Then, because of the structure, you get to know those people throughout the movie. You get to understand, among other things, why they had to die.

The editor and I took everything we shot and, just to remove any doubt, reorganized the material so that it was linear, just to see how that felt. It was all right, but I just didn’t find it as interesting. I didn’t like how we got to know Vivienne as much doing it that way, so I went back to how it was originally written. It was more effective for the story I wanted to tell.  

The idea of focusing on characters who embody the immigrant experience is especially interesting here because, as you said, it is an undeniably important element of the experience of the time. Outside of the occasional likes of something like “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s far too often ignored in most Westerns.

Even in “Heaven’s Gate,” although you see that rich tapestry of cultures and languages, the leads are Anglo-Saxon Americans. I thought it was important to show the cultural diversity at the time in the United States, even in a remote small town on the Western frontier. That is the way it really was—unless you were an Indigenous Native American, people came from all over the place, and you would hear not only different languages and accents but different American dialects as well. That is also more historically accurate and different from what you see and hear in most Westerns. 

Considering that she is one of the best actresses working today, it seems like a no-brainer to cast Vicky Krieps as Vivienne. Beyond that, however, what was it particularly about her that made you think of her for the part?

Vicky has a special kind of beauty, I think, as a woman and a way of expressing herself. What she transmits easily lands as credible as a woman from another time in the past and is perfect for the story that we are telling. It isn’t just her outward appearance—she has something inside, a notable interior strength that she can transmit in any role that she plays, I find. When I finished writing the story, even though I hadn’t written it with her or anyone else in mind, I immediately thought of her because she had all of the qualities of this character. She could make it be anything I imagined the character could be and then some. 

I was hopeful and sent it to her, hoping that she would say yes but realizing that she might not be available or that she might not like it that much. Fortunately, she read it right away and responded positively and immediately—she liked the story, the character, and the idea of being in a Western, so we were off to the races. I knew that once she said yes, the sky was the limit. It was up to us to surround her with a really good cast and do an excellent job in the storytelling to support her. Having her from the start was a big plus and was very encouraging.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt,” for all of its narrative and thematic subversions, has the look and style of a traditional Western. I wanted to ask about your visual strategy. You shot most of this in Mexico, correct?

Yeah. We shot a couple of days in Eastern Canada for the looks at Vivienne’s childhood and a couple of days later in Western Canada for the ending and river crossings. Everything else was shot in Mexico in the state of Durango. The state of Durango is interesting because it had an old Western town that we could convert, which was right for the period and the location in the Southwest. When you think about 1861, when the story starts—about 13 years before, that was Mexico. So the town having so much adobe mixed with wood-frame structures that we made, which are for the more recent arrivals, was right. 

The state of Durango has some amazing landscapes—a variety of deserts, prairies, canyons, waterfalls, high mountains, and forests. What was great was when we went location scouting, we found accessible places where we didn’t have to go too far within the limited time and budget to shoot this. In many cases, when I asked the local location scout what other things had been shot there—was it just Mexican movies, or were there American ones as well? They said that no, nothing had been shot there before. 

It was a gift to us just to be in those beautiful places, but it would also be great for the audience. If you have seen lots of Westerns, you get used to seeing places that you recognize because they have been used over and over at different periods during the history of the genre—you can see Long Pine, California, over and over again or southern Arizona or New Mexico or the south of Spain in Almeria, There are certain landscapes that you get used to seeing. You think, “Oh, I know where they shot this,” and that isn’t the case with our movie. Even though it looks right in terms of the landscapes to be the Southwest, it is new and kind of a gift to the audience. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography was precisely what we were hoping for—simple and elegant—and we can see the landscapes and the characters within them. That was a bonus, being able to show new places in a Western.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” marks your second outing as a director, following 2020’s “Falling.” Having now directed a couple of films—and acted in both as well—do you find that the experience of directing has affected how you approach things as an actor?

In both of these films—and in both cases, it was not the original intention—I ended up acting in them. I found that I was more effective, in strange ways, as an actor because I was more constantly present in the moment during the scenes that I was in. I didn’t have time to doubt myself or be nervous. As a director, I am listening to, as any actor should, the other actors and watching what they do. But I’m also everything around them in the frame—the details, the object, everything—so I was completely present. I think I learned to act more efficiently. Except for being more tired at the end of the day, it just worked better.  I think I was able to help the story more as an actor in a way.

The next movie I do, I won’t act it—I definitely won’t because there is no character that I could play. I enjoyed directing these two movies—it is hard work, and you have to be patient to find the money and put a team together, shoot it, edit it, and then present it to the audience. It takes a long time, much longer than if you are just acting, but I like the process. I’ve always liked the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, and I hope I get to do another one soon—hopefully, it won’t take as long to find the money for the third one as it did for the first two.

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