Film

Viggo Mortensen on Trump, corruption and why classic Westerns are like the best poetry

The Dead Don’t Hurt captures the dusty feel of the frontier, but it’s also quietly revolutionary

Viggo Mortensen in The Dead Don't Hurt

Viggo Mortensen in The Dead Don't Hurt. Image: Marcel Zyskind

Since Westerns first started weaving celluloid tales of cowboys and ‘Indians’ in the early 20th century, they have acted as a sort of origin story for the United States. “It’s a kind of justification” for the settlers’ treatment of Native American people, “and unbridled capitalism, as well, and lawlessness,” says actor and director Viggo Mortensen, best known as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and for his starring role in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

Relaxing in the plush foyer of a Glasgow hotel – having arrived to promote his own Western, The Dead Don’t Hurt, at the Glasgow Film Festival alongside co-star Solly McLeod – Mortensen admits he’s always been attracted to Westerns. “I grew up watching them,” he says. “I’m the first one to recognise that most Westerns are pretty simple and naive, and not terribly original stories, but occasionally, the best of the classic Westerns are on a level of the best poetry, the best tragedies written by human beings since ancient times.”

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It is to these heights Viggo Mortensen aspires with his brooding take on the Wild West. Set in the 1860s, The Dead Don’t Hurt stars Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps as fiercely independent French-Canadian woman Vivienne Le Coudy. She falls for Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen) and the pair move to a frontier town in Nevada as the Civil War looms. When Holger decides to fight for the Union, Vivienne is left alone in a dangerous town, at the mercy of corrupt mayor (Danny Huston), his rancher business partner (Garret Dillahunt) and the rancher’s violent son (Solly McLeod). 

Mortensen not only stars in The Dead Don’t Hurt, he also wrote, directed and produced the film, as well as composing the score. He set out to be “respectful” of classic Westerns. “The story and the look of the people, the way they speak, the way they ride, the weapons – everything should feel real.” 

This meant meticulous attention to detail, and a crash revision course for his crew. “You must have sent me 30, 40, 50 films,” laughs McLeod. Just 24, the Orkney-born actor (previously seen as the eponymous hero in ITVX miniseries Tom Jones) grew up in a time when Westerns “just weren’t a thing”.

“I sent him a lot of movies saying, ‘I’m sorry, it’s really bad, you don’t have to watch all of it. But look at the way the guy puts on his hat, or how he rides a horse,’” Mortensen says. “Or to the set designer, I’d say, ‘Look at this. It’s a terrible movie but the saloon is amazing.’”

Its crew thus immersed in genre history, The Dead Don’t Hurt captures the dusty feel of the frontier, but it’s also quietly revolutionary. Viggo Mortensen has long been known for his political activism – he endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and recently signed an open letter to president Joe Biden calling for an Israeli ceasefire – so he was always going to kick against the more reactionary side of this all-American mythology.

The Dead Don’t Hurt paints a truer picture of the melting pot of the West, says Mortensen, “full of people that don’t even speak English, or that speak English with an accent from another language”. But most noticeably of all, it puts a woman’s story centre stage. 

“Not only that, but when her male companion goes off to war, we don’t see a second of that, we stay with her,” he adds. “The goal was to tell a story about an unusual woman, who’s very stubbornly independent and strong-willed.”

Viewing the world from a female perspective goes a long way to upend the power dynamic of the traditional Western. There’s as much homesteading as there is gunslinging. The human consequences of the era’s lawlessness are thrown in sharp relief. Viggo Mortensen shows the brutality inherent in America’s origin story, thus reframing how the US got to where it is now. 

“The power and the impunity,” of the corrupt men in charge holds a particular parallel to current leaders, he says. “It’s not too hard to compare to Donald Trump and his offspring. The way they speak and feel empowered to do and say whatever they want. As long as they continue to not really pay a price for it, they’ll keep doing it.

“But this happens anywhere. You could talk about Vladimir Putin, and his brutal ambition and grotesque corruption. Whether it’s Trump or Putin, what do you do? You could be a completely non-violent person, but at a certain point you have to defend yourself or you have to defend law.”

For Mortensen, the first step is to stay informed. He “makes it a daily exercise” to review a range of news – including “really right-wing sources” – to give himself the tools to make up his own mind. “If you make that effort, you can find out what really might be happening.”

The Dead Don’t Hurt is in cinemas from 7 June.

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