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All Quiet on the Western Frontier: A TIFF Review of ‘The Dead Don’t Hurt’

September 25, 2023Ben MK

Once a dying breed, the Western has experienced something of a resurgence as of late. Thanks to films like Power of the Dog and shows like Westworld, what was formerly a category of movies largely defined by its narrow and outdated views towards Native Americans has now grown into fertile ground for a wide range of storytelling, from action-packed epics to tender character dramas. It's an evolution that has taken decades, but which has ultimately changed the genre for the better. And with The Dead Don't Hurt, actor-turned-director Viggo Mortensen is shooting his shot, in this tale about one man's journey of love and loss amid the dangerous terrain of the wild, wild west.

Set in 1860s America, the story follows Holger Olsen (Mortensen), a quiet man who used to make a living as a carpenter, but who has now accepted a position as the Sheriff of a burgeoning frontier town ruled over by Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), a corrupt mayor who's more interested in fattening his bankroll than he is in the welfare of his town's citizens. Conspiring with local businessman Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), Rudolph has concocted a scheme that will prove mutually beneficial to the both of them — a scheme that will involve the murder of a few innocent townspeople, as well as the framing of an innocent man for the crime. But when Alfred's sociopathic son Weston (Solly McLeod) commits a heinous act that directly affects the lives of Holger and his wife Vivienne (Vicky Krieps), it sets into motion a series of events that will eventually lead to a bloody showdown. Consumed with the desire to take his revenge on Weston, Holger's only reason for not letting violence resolve the matter lies with his wife and young son, Vincent (Atlas Green), whose safety is his number one concern. However, after Vivienne passes away and Holger is forced to take Vincent in search of a new home, Holger and Weston will find themselves on intersecting paths — paths that will lead to very different ends for each of them.

Told in non-chronological order, the result is something of a puzzle that will require viewers to exercise more than a modicum of patience to solve. Unfortunately, once the pieces have fallen into place, what's revealed proves unworthy of the audience's time. A slow-burn drama that doesn't provide much of a compelling arc for any of its characters, The Dead Don't Hurt is an exercise in futility that attempts to hide its flaws like playing cards up its sleeves. The problem is that once those cards are played, the film's hand is a losing one.

The Dead Don't Hurt screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 9 min.

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