The Dead Don’t Hurt                         Viggo Mortenson (USA; 2023

The Dead Don’t Hurt                         Viggo Mortenson (USA; 2023

The Dead Don’t Hurt                         Viggo Mortensen (USA; 2023) Viggo Mortensen, Vicky Krieps

viewed Star and Shadow Cinema as part of BFI sponsored ‘Escapes’ screenings, 3rd June 2024; £0 free ticket

The dead may not… but the living do…

Viggo Mortensen’s ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’ comes with a five star Guardian Review. This often doesn’t mean it’s a good movie rather one that scores high on the Guardian’s scale of values. Of course reviews are simply outpourings that play an important endemic role in the Film Industry – part of the publicity and marketing apparatus needed to put bums on cinema seats.

DDH might be described as a ‘slow western’. It is full of long slow shots and long big close ups of glowering eyes and the studied probing facial looks which actors seems to specialise in these days of the 10 hour box set. As if long duration in itself means anything outside the delusions of the director. In this Mortensen’s DDH takes after Jane Campion’s 2021 movie ‘The Power of the Dog’ with which it shares a number of attributes and perhaps a particular purpose: namely to re-cast the Western as a psychological relational genre outside of its normal action and buddy conventions. An act of deliberated reclamation.

But as an act of reclamation the ambition of both these films never really extends beyond transposing contemporary mores and usages into the traditional historical settings and locations of the genre. And certainly in the case of DDH this involves a script that nonchalantly skips over the context of the Western setting as a guide rail to the scenario.

In his book about film ‘The Devil Finds Work’ James Baldwin ridicules Jewison’s vehicle for Sidney Poitier, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ for its foundational scripting premise: namely that a black Northern street-wise cop in the 1960’s would ever ever let themselves be in a situation where they changed trains in the middle of the night at a station in a small town in the deep south. No way. No. Likewise significant areas of Mortensen’s scripting of DDH come across as laughable conceits that go beyond the artistic demand of the audience for the suspension of belief. In his scenario Mortenson subjects his viewers to a special pleading to indulge his absurd plot machinations. But when a film pivots about a certain realist setting, the repeated claim by Mortensen on the audience’s patience to go along with his blatant abuse of context, passes a point of no return. Vivienne trots out from her remote home into town to get a job in the local bar, as if she were a young student in San Francisco seeking work as a waitress in a coffee shop. This is a hard swallow, swallowing made all the harder when Olsen her husband airily pops off to war for 5 glossed over years, leaving her in this obviously total vulnerable situation. Likewise Vivienne dying of syphilis after she’s been raped and made pregnant? First up: Syphilis takes 15 – 30 years to slowly kill you. In its final stages it leaves the body and face hammered with open pustules and sores, and the brain demented. Vivienne looks like she’s dying from some fashionable tubercular condition; she’s all wan pale, a beautiful specimen in her dying. Syphilis it ain’t and syphilis is highly infectious. It’s most likely she would have infected both her child and Olsen her partner. But filmwise they escape scot free.

Syphilis aside, Mortensen prefers to get on with the business of soft focus cinematography and leave the hard stuff out of the script. Except for making the point about the issue of of rape and syphilis, it is difficult to see why Mortensen chose syphilis as the cause of Vivienne’s death. As Oscar Wilde quipped: good intentions make bad art.

DDH is is a dull overlong film with a desperately contrived plot, clumsy dialogue mediocre playing and tracked with the inevitable electonic go-on-forever drone type music. Like its precursor ‘The Power of the Dog’ its emotional machinations leave the actors having to invest the characterisation of their roles with a sort of fake intensity, a played out fake intensity that the audience has to sit with for two hours plus. The dead may not hurt whatever banality of the title that points to, but what about the viewer?

adrin neatrour




Author: Star & Shadow

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