Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A History of Great Acting by Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen’s come a long way since A Perfect Murder. That mediocre film was my introduction to him, and he fared well given the material. Gone are the days when he was merely a supporting actor in so-so films. Over the course of the last decade, he’s proven himself to be a serious artist, a devoted method actor and a discerning acting craftsman with good film credits to his name and interesting roles very different in scope and range. No two characters he’s portrayed are remotely similar and neither are the films he’s made. He has avoided becoming merely a “type” to establish himself as one of the premiere actors working today.

Specific films come to mind when I think about Mortensen’s filmography. Among the first to flit to memory, believe it or not, is G.I. Jane. It’s the not the greatest movie ever made, but I liked Mortensen’s role in it. In fact, to me, he’s the best part about the film. As Master Chief Urgayle, Mortensen is a no guff, brutally strict and intimidating figure, but he’s neither a villain nor a one-dimensional meanie. He’s an intriguing character with depth and dimension. He quotes a famous poem by D.H. Lawrence for both its imagery and to freak out the trainees. There’s a scene in which he’s reading a novel that’s not on the Navy’s recommended reading list. He also shows a softness for Demi Moore’s character, Jordan O’Neil, the lone woman undergoing SEAL training. He represents the harsh realities a woman might face in this man’s world not as a villain; you get the sense that he genuinely cares how the presence of a woman in this man’s world can make all involved vulnerable.

Mortensen took on a completely different role in the next movie that comes to mind – A History of Violence. The film is an intriguing yet brutally violent tale with surprising revelations and interesting characters. Mortensen is superb as Tom Stall, a seemingly average man who runs a diner and is happily married with two kids. One day, two men stroll into the diner and attempt to kill one of the employees and rob the diner. Tom kills both men and becomes a local hero and celebrity. As a result of his newfound fame, Tom is visited by a man who claims that Tom is really a gangster named Joey Cusack, and suddenly, Tom’s entire identity and his past are called into question.

The duplicity and Tom’s conflicting identities is portrayed so brilliantly by Mortensen. He is truly Tom Stall, the kind, soft-spoken and gentle small town business owner, husband and father, but Joey Cusack also emerges in his capacity for displaying incredible violence. He goes from mild-mannered to brutal fury in seconds, and Mortensen conveys this violence brewing beneath a calm exterior with exceptional skill.

He became a global star playing Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and seems to share a meaningful professional relationship with director David Cronenberg, with whom he’s made three films. In addition to the aforementioned A History of Violence, Mortensen also starred in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a film I like even better.

Eastern Promises is an extraordinary crime thriller. More extraordinary is Mortensen’s acting in the film. He completely transforms himself into Nikolai, a violent Russian who’s a driver and bodyguard for a crime family in the Russian mafia in London. Mortensen is Danish-American, not Russian, but he nails the Russian accent and digs so deep to play the role of Nikolai that he simply gets lost in the character. Not for one moment does he slip out of character or relinquish anything, neither mannerisms nor breaks in the accent. He wholly becomes Nikolai that it’s hard to recognize him at first. Very deservedly, Mortensen was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film.

If Mortensen’s last two collaborations with Cronenberg are any indication, I am expecting great things from their most recent enterprise – A Dangerous Method. It will be interesting to see how vividly Mortensen is able to bring famed psychotherapist Sigmund Freud to life. Apparently he even mastered Freud’s penmanship – now that’s dedication and that’s giving your all to your work.

What are your favourite Viggo Mortensen roles? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. Boy, he's really come a long way. He's really good in Eastern Promises, but he's damn good in A History of Violence. I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes an Oscar winner in the near future.

  2. My experience with Mortensen is minimal. Mainly because I haven't seen much of Cronenberg.

    Great write up, though.

  3. Phips3:25 pm

    Couldnt agree more. This whole post is spot on.
    I loved him in Eastern Promises..the film was awesome too.

    Ive been meaning to see A Dangerous Method but havent had time.

  4. I first saw Mortensen in a small role in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness. I then saw him a few more times in some 90s action flicks (Young Guns II, Boiling Point, Crimson Tide, etc.) It wasn't until 1999's A Walk on the Moon where he played the "blouse man" that Diane Lane's character gets caught up with that I took notice of him as anything more than a character actor. The Lord of the Rings work that followed, of course, basically let him write his own ticket to Hollywood afterwards.

    I agree that A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are probably his best acting roles.

  5. Wow... that is tough. I want to say Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings trilogy but it's really a toss-up between A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

    I would also like to add Carlito's Way where he has a great scene revealing his own humility.

  6. great piece! my favorite is a history of violence, for sure

  7. Great post. My favorite Viggo role is definitely Eastern Promises.

  8. Anonymous9:44 pm

    for me its a toss between eastern promises and the road..but he is pretty amazing in dangerous method,history and of course lotrs..also in prophecy (he's lucifer)

  9. Anonymous4:45 am

    One of Viggo's best roles is in "The Indian Runner" (1991). The movie is a bit uneven (Sean Penn's 1st directing job)and depressing but Viggo's performance is heart-wrenching. Watch it if you can.

  10. I love his collaborations with Cronenberg, but I thing his best role is Alatriste, a spanish film he made in 2006. See it if you can.

  11. LuAnne Beutel10:53 am

    I think all of his movies are excellent. Viggo is passionate about his work & he chooses roles that interest him. He puts his heart & sole into every role & becomes that character. All of his movies are my favorites-not able to choose just one.

  12. Perfect as Strider/Aragorn. Heartbreaking in The Road. Seems like a pretty cool guy too!

  13. @MovieNut14 – ‘Eastern Promises’ and ‘A History of Violence’ are my two favourite Viggo Mortensen films. I agree - an Oscar is definitely in his future.

    @Sam Fragoso – I highly recommend ‘Eastern Promises’ and ‘A History of Violence.’ They’re both great films and Mortensen is fantastic in both.

    Thanks – glad you liked the post!

    @Phips – Thanks for the wonderful response! ‘Eastern Promises’ is a fantastic film. I have yet to see ‘A Dangerous Method’ too, but I hope to very, very soon.

    @Chip Lary – You know, I’ve seen ‘Witness,’ but I can’t remember Mortensen in it. The same thing goes for ‘Young Guns II’ and ‘Crimson Tide.’ I do remember him in ‘Carlito’s Way,’ though. I’ll have to make a point of seeing ‘A Walk on the Moon.’ I imagine Viggo Mortensen and Diane Lane are a great onscreen duo.

    He and Cronenberg seem to make great movies together. I’m going to make a point of re-watching ‘Eastern Promises’ now since it’s been on my mind a lot since I writing this post.

    @thevoid99 – yes, I remembered his great minor role in ‘Carlito’s Way’ after I wrote this post. His Cronenberg films rank highest for me.

    @Candice Frederick – Thank you! 'A History of Violence' is a great film.

    @Dave Enkosy – Thanks, Dave. Glad you liked the post. That’s my favourite role of his, too.

    @Anonymous – I haven’t seen ‘The Road’ yet, and I hadn’t heard about ‘The Prophecy.’ I looked it up and it’s one of his older films which is probably why I’m not familiar with it – should be an interesting one. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the mention.

    @Anonymous – I don’t know that film. Thanks for the mention. I’ll check it out.

    @hermione0 – Agreed. He and Cronenberg seem to make great movies together. I’m not familiar with that Spanish film. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll seek it out.

    @LuAnne Beutel – he is definitely a unique and special actor. He chooses roles that are so different, so his performances are always fresh and new. He really is a forceful presence onscreen and always a joy to watch.

    @Pete – he does seem pretty cool! I read a few different articles about him while I was doing research for this post and he was quoted a few times as saying he’s not interested in stardom or Hollywood or glitz and glamour. He just wants to make good films and he always wants to challenge himself in his work. I think that’s an amazing thing.

    I haven’t had a chance to see ‘The Road’ yet. I think it’s currently playing on the movie network that I subscribe to, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.


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