The opening scenes​ of Viggo Mortensen’s new film, The Dead Don’t Hurt, are like an essay in montage or a puzzle for students of Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin. A knight in armour rides a horse through a forest. A woman lies in bed. There is a shoot-out in a small Western town. How are we to put these pictures together? Mortensen is not going to help us. He gives us lots more pictures, but he won’t tell us what time period we’re inhabiting, or even whether we’re looking at the contents of a mind or a notional real world. The method is awkward but has many interesting effects.

The knight could have come from one of the Lord of the Rings movies in which Mortensen starred (he was Aragorn, a man who, among other things, fell in love with a female elf) and the fantasy connection is not irrelevant. In The Dead Don’t Hurt the knight is also imaginary and belongs to the dream world of a little girl called Vivienne (Eliana Michaud). She sees him when she thinks of her father, a French Canadian who fought against the English and was executed by them. This and later moments in the film are dated by the start and end of the American Civil War (1861-65), when the girl is a grown-up. The adult Vivienne is wonderfully played by Vicky Krieps.

Vivienne asks her mother why men fight. Her mother says there are reasons, and they both return to their reading of a book about Joan of Arc, another French-speaking enemy of the English. Vivienne says she wants to fight, but only in the way her father and Joan of Arc fought. They both laugh. As we may or may not have worked out by this stage, the little girl grows up to become our adult heroine, the woman we have already seen on her deathbed in the film’s second scene. Soon after that a hand closes her eyes. The hand belongs to Holger Olsen, a Danish settler in America, played by Mortensen himself.

The connection of these two scenes to the shoot-out is essential, but not at all obvious. After the violent episode a group of slightly too slick men visits Olsen, who is burying Vivienne on a dry, rocky hillside. They offer their condolences, but he doesn’t listen to anything they say. The film cuts to the trial of the supposed shooter in the third scene. Here Mortensen’s clumsiness – or boldness – becomes quite extravagant, because nothing in the trial, neither the ritual procedure, the verdict, nor the way the condemned man looks, seems to have any relation to what we saw during the shoot-out.

There we saw a saloon from the outside, heard gunshots from indoors, and watched a man come out of the bar and turn around to shoot somebody who was following him. The killer is well-dressed, in a top hat and frock coat, and appears to be what he is: a member of the local gentry – more specifically, the spoiled son of the richest man in town. The father, Alfred Jeffries, is played by Garrett Dillahunt and his son, Weston, by Solly McLeod. Both actors inhabit their roles with relish: the dignified dictator and the drunken, violent layabout who knows he can get away with anything. This all made me think of another film in which Mortensen appeared, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), where all the gangsters were Russians. Another title for The Dead Don’t Hurt could be ‘Western Promises’, but this movie is a very late contribution to the genre. Only the worst promises are kept. The familiar nostalgia for loneliness and independence persists, along with a distrust of organised social life, but they are accompanied by a strong sense that society and corrupt law have already ruined the pastoral scene for good. This film is about class and money rather than who shot Liberty Valance.

Weston Jeffries, smartly dressed as ever, is present at the trial and sentencing of someone else for his crime. This unfortunate figure, who seems to be mentally disabled, is bewildered and unable to form sentences. How could he have known that he was the ideal scapegoat for someone else’s violence? There are protests in the courtroom, and one woman is particularly eloquent in her complaint, but she is silenced. At the end of the movie we learn that Olsen has been a sheriff in this town, and watch him return his star and keys, presumably because of the recent miscarriage of justice. This must be right, but he has reasons of his own to hate the excused killer.

After the trial and execution, the film meanders for quite a while. We keep seeing Olsen on horseback with a little boy and wonder who the child is. We wonder about other things too. One of the problems of consigning significant material to a flashback is that we appear to be getting nowhere – nowhere, that is, except the place where we have already been. The adult Vivienne meets Olsen in San Francisco. Or rather he watches her sell flowers, and she is taken by his engaging and enigmatic silence. Both characters are meant to be weird and independent, and quirkily made for one another. It’s true that Vivienne offers a plausible version of an eccentric elf, and that Olsen’s dialogue often seems to have come from an old Scandinavian saga rather than a moment in the immigrant history of North America. But the long sequence is pretty boring, and many people in the cinema where I saw the film were looking at their watches at this point.

Vivienne returns with Olsen to his house in the high country and they go about their business. She brings flowers into his dry world; he manages to make his house look less like a work in progress. Things look up, dramatically speaking, when Olsen decides to fight for the North in the Civil War. There is a strong suggestion that all the important people in town are Southern sympathisers, and in one of his many violent moments Weston Jeffries beats up a Mexican pianist for playing what he takes to be a Northern song.

Vivienne hates the idea of Olsen leaving her for the war and doesn’t pretend to sympathise with his position. Later she realises that both of their identities are caught up in their different but equally unshakeable ideas of independence, and she eagerly welcomes him back. Things have changed, however. She has worked in the saloon in town and been bullied by Weston Jeffries, as he bullies everyone else. Then he goes further. He decides that an attractive woman living on her own is his personal gift from the gods, and he proceeds to visit and rape her. Her life after this attack is poised and mainly silent; Krieps conveys with great coolness the bravery of carrying on such an existence. She has a child and calls him Vincent after her father, an imaginative attempt to deny biology and pursue her own myth. On Olsen’s return from the war, she tells him what happened and says some people in town think that the Mexican pianist is the father, presumably because they think French and Spanish speakers must be birds of a feather. Olsen wonders if this is true.

Towards the end of the movie Olsen takes to the road with Vincent, and some of the film’s most delicate scenes belong to them. The boy sees a wolf and starts howling in imitation and sympathy. After a moment Olsen joins him, and the effect is a sort of meeting in music. When Olsen shoots a bird for a meal, Vincent looks at the hole in the creature’s chest and asks if it is suffering. Olsen provides the title of the film. And in a very late moment the two reach a location where a sea seems to stretch into infinity. ‘Is it the end of the world?’ Vincent says in French. Olsen hesitates, smiles and says: ‘This one.’ Heroes of Westerns often leave the known world, but very few of them think there might be another.

The climactic late scene in the film is a further shoot-out, mixed with a brawl. It takes place between Olsen and Weston Jeffries, and the boy watches. It is because he is watching, we may think, that Olsen, who has won the fight, does not kill Weston. He just leaves him battered and bleeding in the desert. I don’t know whether Mortensen wants us to think of a darker, crueller reading of the film’s title phrase. The living can hurt a lot.

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