Producers: Regina Solórzano, Jeremy Thomas and Viggo Mortensen   Director: Viggo Mortensen   Screenplay: Viggo Mortensen   Cast: Vicky Krieps, Viggo Mortensen, Solly McLeod, Garret Dillahunt, Danny Huston, Colin Morgan, Ray McKinnon, W. Earl Brown, Atlas Green, Luke Reilly, John Getz, Shane Graham, Alex Breaux, Eliana Michaud, Frédéric Tremblay and Rafel Plana Honorato    Distributor: Shout! Studios

Grade: B-

Viggo Mortensen’s second directorial effort, which he also wrote, stars in and scored in somber tones, is an unusual western, structured like a chronological puzzle that unfolds at a leisurely, ruminative pace, and with a feminist emphasis. As paced by Mortensen and edited by Peder Pedersen, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” suffers from a meandering, self-consciously arty air and clumsy structure, but it’s emotionally affecting and visually impressive, the former because of its incisive portrait of a resilient woman in a man’s world and the latter because of the evocative images captured by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind on gorgeous locations (largely in the area of Durango, Mexico) and the convincing sets designed by Carol Spier and Jason Clarke and costumes by Anne Dixon.

The title comes from a response by Holger Olsen (Mortensen) to Vincent (Vincent (Atlas Green), the young boy he’s raising as his son, when the boy inquires whether a dead bird feels pain.  The conversation occurs not long after the boy’s mother Vivienne (Vicky Krieps) has died of cancer and the two survivors are traveling to the West Coast from their isolated home outside the small Nevada town of Elk Flats.

The screenplay also offers a capsule account of young Vivienne Le Coudy (Eliana Michaud), a French Canadian who idolizes her father (Frédéric Tremblay).  He was executed for his fight against the British, and she looked upon him with the romantic eyes of a girl who dreamed about knights in shining armor. 

Somehow Vivienne ended up in San Francisco as the flower-selling mistress of wealthy art dealer Lewis Cartwright (Colin Moran).  But she finds his controlling attitude intolerable, and reacts with pleasure when approached by Holger, a Danish immigrant who fought in wars in Europe.  She accompanies him back to Nevada, where he’s built his remote home, and they settle down together, with Vivienne adding female touches to the ramshackle place. 

When the Civil War breaks out and Union recruiters invite enlistment, Holger impulsively decides to join the army.  Vivienne is left to make her way alone, taking a job at the saloon run by courteous Alan Kendall (W. Earl Brown), though he shares ownership with wealthy town entrepreneur Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt).  She develops a friendship with the place’s piano player Claudio (Rafel Plana Honorato) and his young daughter, but must resist the advances of Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod), Alfred’s brutal, bigoted, short-tempered son.  But Weston is determined, and ultimately rapes her, leaving her pregnant with Vincent.

When Holger returns from the war, he’s shocked to find Vincent at their home, but decides to raise him, after some initial reluctance, as his own, and develops a strong bond with the boy.  (Weston, it’s revealed, has left the area after killing two of his father’s Mexican hands.)  Holger also accepts an offer from Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), the smooth-talking mayor of the town, to serve as sheriff, taking on an eager, honest young rider (Shane Graham) as his deputy—despite the fact that Schiller is clearly in cahoots with the older Jeffries.

Then disaster strikes with Vivienne’s illness and a killing spree in town, which leaves the deputy and several others dead.  Jeffries and Schiller conspire to blame one of Jeffries’ gofers, the addled, inarticulate Wilkins (Alex Breaux), who’s hanged after being tracked down by Holger and convicted in a trial conducted by a histrionic judge (an over-the-top Ray McKinnon).  But it’s suspected by townsfolk that the real culprit is Weston, and inevitably Holger will be forced to contend with him before leaving for California with Vincent.                   

Mortensen wrote and directed “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” and gives a solid if deliberately understated performance as the taciturn Holger. But as writer-director his focus is on Vivienne, and Krieps brings steely resolve and indomitability to the character.  Dillahunt and Huston are convincingly oily as villains scheming to take total economic control over the region, buying up claims to promising gold tracts, but McLeod chews the scenery mercilessly as Weston; Mortensen might well have urged a little restraint on him.  On the other hand, Brown makes a likable barkeep (though Kendall’s survival in the trade, given the plans of Schiller and Jeffries, is in doubt), and Honorato earns sympathy as a talented fellow who must suffer abuse from Weston no less than Vivienne.  Tykes Green and Michaud are suitably adorable.

“The Dead Don’t Hurt”—unlike, of course, the psychologically wounded survivors in this story—is flawed and more than a mite pretentious, but the visuals, along with strong turns from Mortensen and particularly Krieps, make the ambitious western worth watching, although doing so demands a measure of patience.