Lord of the Gunslingers

Much more than a mere handsome action hero, Viggo Mortensen, star of The Lord of the Rings movies, is spreading his creative wings again by getting behind the camera for the second time. In addition to playing the male leader, Mortensen has directed, written, produced and composed music for The Dead Don’t Hurt. The politically aware artist (see: has also done something interesting with the tried-and-true Western genre – putting progressive politics about women, slavery, immigrants, middle-aged romance, parenting, etc., into this Civil War-era horse opera set in Nevada around the time the territory became a state. 

In Hurt Viggo co-stars as Holger Olsen, a Danish sheriff or marshal of a Wild West town who meets Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps) at a market while visiting San Francisco. The French-Canadian flower seller has been fending off the unwanted advances of a moneybags who has been pursuing her. For some reason that’s never clearly explained, there’s an instant attraction between Holger and Vivienne and romance swiftly blossoms. Perhaps, in addition to sexual frisson, they sense they are kindred spirits in that each of them has a strong independent streak.

In any case, Vivienne makes the journey from the Bay Area to Nevada with Holger where they settle into domestic bliss at his homestead outside of Elk Flats. This frontier town is run by the corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston, a familiar screen presence in films such as John Sayles’ 2004 Silver City and son of legendary director John Huston) and his shady business partner, rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), who I believe is from the South. His ne’er-do-well son Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod) has an out-of-control violent, sadistic side and runs roughshod over the town.

When Union soldiers show up at Elk Flats to recruit men during the Civil War, Holger decides to join up, telling Vivienne that he wants to fight against “slavery.” Left to her own devices, Vivienne must make ends meet by working in the town’s saloon and alone on their ranch/farm. With Holger out of the picture, Vivienne once again finds herself being stalked by an unwelcome would-be suitor, Weston. To avoid plot spoilers, let’s just say that foul play ensues… 

 The Dead Don’t Hurt is very strong on gender politics. Vicky Krieps is one of Europe’s most acclaimed actresses. The Luxembourg thesp, whose grandfather fought in the resistance during WWII, won a “Best Performance” accolade at Cannes’ in 2022 for Corsage and co-starred with Daniel Day-Lewis in 2017’s The Phantom Thread. Krieps has specialized in portraying women who break out of and clash with strictly defined genre roles and taboos. For instance, in Corsage Krieps depicts Hungary’s Queen and Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, who chafed against strict gender roles and court protocols that limited her personal freedom. One of Corsage’s posters shows Krieps’ empress giving the finger in disdain and/or defiance.

In Raoul Peck’s 2018 The Young Karl Marx, which commemorated the bicentennial of Marx's birth (see:, Krieps portrayed Jenny Marx. At an LA private screening of Corsage, when I asked Krieps about portraying Karl’s wife, she smiled impishly, raised a clenched fist and said, “Kommunisme!” 

Her Vivienne Le Coudy is the latest of the fiercely independent women she has played. Unlike Cathy Downs’ eponymous school marm in John Ford’s 1946 classic Western My Darling Clementine, who is Wyatt Earp’s (Henry Fonda) faithful, goody two-shoes sweetheart, Krieps shatters genre conventions with her portrayal of a strong-willed frontierswoman.

The North versus South angle of the film is also powerful. As mentioned, Holger – the good guy – enlists in the Union Army, while his antagonist, the villainous Weston – the bad guy – is, as I recall, a pro-Confederate Southerner. In addition, the corrupt role government officials and capitalists played in the settling of the West is, well, unsettling. Their motto could well be: “What happens in Nevada stays in Nevada.”   

Hurt also shows the role immigrants played in the transformation of the West, as the two leads play foreign-born characters. I believe one scene briefly shows a Chinese extra, and there are characters of Mexican lineage. In our xenophobic age, this rewriting of the Western’s conventions can be seen as pro-immigrant. However, the mostly Nevada-set (but Durango, Mexico shot) Hurt arguably commits a grievous omission in that I don’t recall seeing a single Indigenous cast member, although a number of tribes, including Paiutes and Shoshones, are Native to Nevada.

Another way Hurt breaks the norms is that the lovers are no spring chickens. They are mature adults, well into middle-age: Mortensen is 65, while Krieps is 40. Yet they are depicted as having an erotic, romantic relationship, despite the fact that, unlike Romeo and Juliet, they’re no longer teenagers, or even in their twenties. This film has important things to say about child rearing, too. 

In addition, Hurt goes back and forth in time, which may perplex some popcorn munchers. Moviegoers who want to saddle up and ride out to the multi-plex for a more conventionally told Western with traditional genre traits may be disappointed. But for more adventurous viewers willing to stray off the beaten path, by using a popular genre in an unusual way, Viggo Mortensen breathes new life into a type of movie that’s been around at least since Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery with Broncho Billy Anderson, shot for Thomas Edison’s studio in 1903 (in the wilds of New Jersey, BTW).

The thoughtful, left-leaning Western is well-acted and well-made, and in his second time up at bat as a writer/director, Viggo Mortensen proves that he’s much more than a mere lord of the rings.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is being theatrically released nationwide May 31.