Viggo Mortensen Looks Homeward in The Dead Don’t Hurt

How his Western centers women’s struggles over men’s wars

Viggo Mortensen creates a new kind of Western in The Dead Don't Hurt, out now from Shout! Studios (Image Courtesy of Shout! Studios)

When most filmmakers make a revisionist Western, it’s still riddled with all the old tropes about masculinity, just seen from a different perspective. But that doesn’t interest Viggo Mortensen.

For his new Civil War-era Western (in theatres now from Shout! Studios), the star of Lord of the Rings and Crimes of the Future writes, directs, and stars as Holger Olsen, a Danish migrant who rides to join the Union forces. He leaves his beloved, French-Canadian Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps, Corsage, Phantom Thread) to run their farmstead without him. But the story eschews his battlefront and stays with her, as she navigates life in a corrupt settlement where the conflict – and law – are distant.

Rather than a gun-toting epic, it’s a story of abandonment, loss, and survival that centers around Vivienne. She has seen this all before, when her father went to war. Mortensen explains, “She says ‘Why do men fight?’ and her mother doesn’t have a great answer – because there isn’t a great answer for it."

Vicky Krieps as Vivienne in The Dead Don't Hurt the revisionist Western out now from Shout! Studios (Image Courtesy of Shout! Studios)

Austin Chronicle: Everything about this film is defined by the decision to focus on Vivienne, not Holger.

Viggo Mortensen: Even when he leaves, he rides out of shot. You stay with her and you don’t see him for a long time. I wanted to explore that. I was curious, because I hadn’t seen that much in movies, and really not much in books. The normal thing to see in a Western or a story about this period, the guy goes off to war and you get to see that. You maybe get glimpses of her – or maybe you don’t. Maybe you forget about her character. And when he returns, whatever state he’s in, she may be dead, which is sad for him. Or she may have gone off and married someone else, which is also sad for him. Or she’s there and she tearfully embraces him, and they carry on and that’s great for him.

But what about her? What has she been up to all this time? What are the consequences for little girls like Vivienne or women like Vivienne when their sons or fathers or brothers or partners go off to fight their male wars?

AC: Holger signs up for moral reasons, and you do have a lot of Europeans who come to the States and are immediately appalled because they come from places where slavery was already banned.

VM: It’s a timeless thing. You look at non-Ukrainians who have gone to Ukraine. Most of them not for naïve, wanting adventure, mercenary reasons, but for moral reasons. They thought this was the right thing to do, just as they went from the UK or United States or France to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

It’s something that happens; I’m not judging that it’s a good thing because, at the end of the day, all war’s an error. It doesn’t matter how noble the cause is, or the instinct that one has when they want to put their body on the line. The result is always the same: It’s sadness, chaos, destruction, tragedy, and it’s a mess. But it’s something that people do, and often, like Olsen, they think, “Well, I have these skills, I’ve done this before, and I can be useful.”

AC: Westerns don’t often reflect the reality of the West, which is that it was filled with cultural and linguistic diversity from across Europe. If you look at Texas of the era, it’s filled with German and Czech settlers, and the Capitol is built by Scotsmen. But you never hear that diversity in Westerns.

VM: Sometimes you do, but it’s rare. Heaven’s Gate, you have German and Eastern European voices and accents, but even in the best Westerns, even if you have people who are originally from China or from European countries or Mexico, they’re not normally the lead. Normally, your leading characters are usually Anglo-Saxon, American-born characters. Sometimes it might be an Englishman who has an important role, or an Irish person, but they’re not usually the leads. And for this film the leads, especially the most important character, Vivienne, English is not their first language.

There’s this other character, Claudio the piano player (Rafel Plana). He’s Spanish, and he plays too well for that piano. Why is he there? Well, because he ended up in a relationship, and he has a kid, and he lives there.

This is what the country was made of. … To accurately show society, even less populated parts of the Western frontier, it was a mixed bag. Even the American accents you hear have a little bit of variation. People come from different places. That’s the way it was, and in this story I thought it was as important to show that in a natural, organic way as it was to be accurate about the saddles and the lamps and the hats and the clothes and the architecture.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is in theatres now.

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Viggo Mortensen, The Dead Don't Hurt, Vicky Krieps, Shout! Studios

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