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How Viggo Mortensen Found a Fresh Voice Within a Familiar Western Setting

The Dead Don't Hurt, which premiered at DIFF, tells a story of two European immigrants trying to survive, both together and apart, in 1860s Nevada.
Viggo Mortensen directs and stars in The Dead Don’t Hurt. Marcel Zyskind/Shout! Studios

Ever since his childhood, Viggo Mortensen was enamored with the aesthetics of the Western genre: the sweeping landscapes, the horsemanship, the unique period details.

But he sensed the absence of more authenticity among the characters. So after starring in a few, the Oscar-nominated actor directs his first Western with The Dead Don’t Hurt, which gave him a chance to bring a female-driven, multicultural perspective to the American frontier. The film, which was well-received during its United States premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival in late April, will open in theaters this week.

“It was important to me to show the diversity of society back then, even on the western frontier,” Mortensen said. “People came from all over. That’s not the impression you get from a lot of Westerns, but it’s historically accurate.”

The story is set during the onset of the Civil War in a town in Nevada, land which belonged to Mexico only 13 years prior. That’s where tough-minded Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) settles with Danish immigrant Holger (Mortensen) to start a life together. However, after Holger joins the Union army, Vivienne is left to fend for herself, working as a bartender while dealing with a corrupt mayor (Danny Huston) and a shady rancher (Garret Dillahunt). And she remains uncertain whether Holger will return, or how their lives will forever change.

“The idea was to tell a story about a relatively ordinary woman with kind of a normal, everyday kind of courage and decency,” said Mortensen, whose screenplay became personal, as certain aspects of Vivienne are inspired by childhood recollections of his mother, Grace.

“I started writing this story about this woman who’s very independent-minded, free-thinking, and stubborn,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to place that kind of a woman in the 19th century in the West, in a society that was fairly lawless and dominated by a few unscrupulous men prone to violence. That would create more of a challenge for her and be an interesting contrast, and not something you usually see in Westerns.”

Mortensen wasn’t originally going to star in the film, but stepped in late because of a schedule conflict involving the original actor. That enabled him to infuse Holger with Danish heritage that matches his own.

The film was shot primarily in Durango, Mexico, which provided both the adobe architecture for the buildings and the rugged beauty of the rural terrain.

“It’s a simple, elegant, unpretentious way of looking at everything, so you really feel like you’re there,” Mortensen said, who’s also an artist and composer when he’s not acting.

In fact, he wrote and composed the entire score for The Dead Don’t Hurt prior to filming, an unusual approach that paid dividends throughout the process.

“I played the music before we started shooting for the cinematographer and the crew, to explain what I was looking for in terms of the duration of the scenes, and the tone and the rhythm,” he said. “It was helpful during the shoot and in the editing room, as well.”

He hopes the film will, within a classic Western framework, prompt moviegoers to engage with characters who are frequently marginalized or relegated to the periphery in the genre.

“I wanted to explore, among other things, what happens to little girls and women when their fathers or husbands or sons or brothers go off to fight their largely masculine wars. We don’t see that in Westerns,” Mortensen said. “Normally you would go with the guy and see some battles. But what about her? That was important to me.”


Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson