Viggo Mortensen’s first feature as a director, 2020’s “Falling,” was in some ways an exercise in rigorous, controlled filmmaking, a family drama that jumped between generations to tell a subtle but explosive story about age, memory and forgiveness. But his second film, “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is something entirely different. It’s still controlled, to be sure, but simultaneously controlled and freewheeling, a period Western that introduces cliches only to subvert or twist them.
It jumps around in time in a purposeful use of misdirection, and it’s a Western that gives the Old West – in this case, Nevada in the 1860s – a healthy population of immigrants, from the Danish sheriff Holger Olsen (Mortensen) to his partner (not wife) Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), who speaks French but answers his question, “Where are you from?” with a blunt, “I am American.”
This is Mortensen’s America, where a barroom conversation can shift seamlessly between English, Spanish and French and the sheriff’s ability to speak at least those languages plus Danish is never remarked upon. Even the folks who stick to English speak it with flair. “If any man here evinces even a readiness to utter such calumny, I will whip his ass right now,” local rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt) announces in the courtroom when a woman dares suggest that his son Weston might have been the one who killed six people in the saloon, rather than the unfortunate stutterer who’s being railroaded.
The movie can be as florid as the language at times, but it also packs a punch and knows how to use the tropes it’s twisting. There’s a saloon with swinging doors and an assortment of gunslingers, but there’s also a recurring vision of a medieval knight in the forest. The music, which was also written by Mortensen, is long on Western-style fiddle tunes that contain echoes of the classic trail laments, but it may also shift into serene classical chamber music if that sits better with the dialogue. Or those chords can get downright portentous when the title appears on the screen in red about five minutes and six dead bodies in.
Mortensen is clearly having fun with the Western genre and using it as the backdrop to an incisive character study of a couple of people who don’t really fit in that world – Mortensen’s Olsen, a reluctant lawman who’d rather build barns or take a couple of years off to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and Krieps’ Vivienne, who abandons a pretentious and well-heeled beau in San Francisco to live in a shack outside a dusty town ruled by bad men.
The movie begins with a series of deaths – first a woman in a bed, then a half dozen men in and around the saloon – and then introduces Olsen as he’s burying the mother of his son. “We’ve come to inform you that great misfortune has befallen our community,” says the mayor, Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), who leads a delegation to tell Olsen of the carnage at the saloon.
But they’re not there to ask the sheriff to bring in the culprit, who is clearly Weston Jeffries, a brutal hothead of the first order. Rather than mess with his rich and powerful father, they’ve fingered a hapless local to be tried, convicted and hanged in short order. After all, the saloon owner is one of the dead men, and Alfred Jeffries stands to take over the joint and, with the help of the mayor, to expand into gaming activities and “sporting ladies.”
Sheriff Olsen quits rather than going along with this farce – and while you’d expect an honorable lawman in this kind of movie to strap on his guns and go after the villains, the film instead flashes back to Olsen’s meeting with Vivienne in San Francisco. For the bulk of the movie’s two hours, it slides between times without announcing the jumps: Olsen and Vivienne make a home, he goes off to war but suddenly he’s not in the battlefield but in the woods with his son, the result of Weston raping Vivienne.
The focus is not on who did what when, but on who these people are: quiet, gentle souls who don’t fit in this landscape but can find their place in it if they need to. If you try to track every shift, it can be confusing; if you accept Mortensen’s vision of the west as a place with room for kindness and inclusion, it grows richer as the pieces shift and fall into place, and as Krieps’ Vivienne becomes the film’s true centerpiece.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Western if it didn’t include some kind of showdown, and “The Dead Don’t Hurt” gives us one that is bloody and satisfying without being what you’d expect. Mortensen twists the tropes until the end, when he may well become the first Western hero to utter the phrase, “Bonjour, little man.”
“The Dead Don’t Hurt” is a sales title at TIFF.