The dead don’t hurt, but they sure pile up quickly in Viggo Mortensen’s period Western, which features enough of them to fill a medium-sized morgue. Indeed, a handful of sorry souls die within minutes: Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), bedridden and battling illness, takes her final breaths; several men are shot down at a saloon; and one more is hanged shortly after, having been found guilty of the murder spree.

Mortensen’s sophomore outing as a writer-director after his 2020 father-son drama, “Falling” (Mortensen also stars in both), “The Dead Don’t Hurt” staggers a bit awkwardly between dignified drama and bang-bang cowboy flick. Set on the American frontier in the 1860s, the film largely takes place in a dusty little cowtown peopled with red-blooded men who whip out their pistols whenever their egos are bruised. Mortensen shoulders a heavy load of this big male energy as Holger Olsen, a stoic Danish immigrant who, despite his love for Vivienne, can’t shake his sense of masculine duty — particularly once he buries her and rides off with their young son in search of new beginnings.

But this timeline — the one where Vivienne has passed away — soon recedes in favor of an earlier sequence of events that begins with Vivienne and Holger’s meet-cute and then traces the length of their relationship thereafter. Affecting flashbacks to Vivienne’s rural Canadian upbringing offer an origin story for her headstrong independence, while periodic cutaways to Holger and his son roving the frontier after her death remind of what’s to come.

This structural ingenuity elevates a film that, otherwise, covers familiar terrain. The French-Canadian Vivienne meets Holger in San Francisco, where she spends her days selling cut flowers and dodging come-ons by a smarmy member of the haut monde (Colin Morgan). Intrigued by Holger and lacking roots in the city, Vivienne follows him back to his hometown in Nevada, where she discovers that he lives in near-squalor; despite his globe-trotting, the home base he chose is a ramshackle cabin tucked against a plateau. Her reaction to the home introduces a note of comedy; surveying the place in horror, she might as well be a millennial discovering that her hook-up’s apartment is draped with tapestries and strewn with cat litter.

Archetypal small-town characters fill the community. There’s the local ruffian, Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod); his wealthy, powerful father, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt); the corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston); and the kindly tender of the town saloon, Alan (W. Earl Brown). Accustomed to making her own money, Vivienne requests a job at Alan’s watering hole, although the gig turns out to be more about withstanding daily doses of sexism from Weston than actually serving booze.

Krieps brings a soft focus to the role of Vivienne, and her effortless poise grounds a character who otherwise might have been crushed beneath a mountain of machismo. This depth isn’t enough to save the film’s desultory romance scenes, though, which fall consistently flat. A partial culprit is the cliched dialogue, which — full of empty pauses and set to a sentimental score — would fail to move even the sappiest moviegoer. But most of the blame falls on the cinematography. On only a handful of occasions does Mortensen hit on an interesting image or a striking tableau, and characters are consistently shown in dull medium close-up.

A tale of romance and revenge that culminates in a shootout, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” is not a total misfire. There are moments of excitement, and the film’s semi-nonlinearity allows for a few midpoint surprises about characters we thought we knew. But in squandering the natural beauty of its setting and failing to imbue its central relationship with feeling, this big swing of a film feels less epic than perfunctory.

Grade: C

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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