4 Performances: Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen is the greatest living American actor that no one in America cares about.  After struggling through a lot of false-starts early in his career, including a so-so remake of VANISHING POINT for television and opposite Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in A PERFECT MURDER, he finally broke in a big way when cast as Aragorn in director Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS.  He has a new movie (finally) coming out this week, Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, directed by John Hillcoat, who also made one of the best modern Westerns, THE PROPOSITION, so I thought I'd give a run-down of some of my favorite Viggo roles from the past decade.

A vehicle for Christopher Walken, who stars as the angel Gabriel, sent to Earth to nab the soul of a child that will end the war raging in Heaven, this dark fantasy / horror first caught my attention because it was pretty intense.  While some may find it hokey now (it was a bit then, too), the film boasts a powerful cast, with a personal favorite of mine, Elias Koteas, playing the down and out Thomas Daggett, a man who must stop Gabriel from fulfilling the prophecy.  Mortensen makes an appearance as Lucifer, and almost steals the show from Walken and company; no easy task, I assure you.

Mortensen carries this trilogy on his shoulders, and handles it brilliantly.  While the films are about the journeys of many characters, Aragorn is really the thread that holds everything together, growing from an outcast into rightful heir to the throne of man in Middle Earth.  This series put him on the map, and oddly enough, a sex symbol to nerd and non-nerd alike, who were down one way or another for his rough-and-tumble portrayal of the wandering prodigal son.

After LORD OF THE RINGS, Mortensen worked with director David Cronenberg on two extremely affecting films, the low-key A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and the London-set crime film EASTERN PROMISES.  As Tom Stall, the main character in HISTORY, Mortensen plays a man whose past is catching up with him, and is threatening to rip his family apart at the seams.  HISTORY is a meditation on the eruption of violence as it permeates everyday life, from the instant, bloody death of someone in a coffee shop to the ramifications of violence as possible ingrained human behavior.  Switching gears a bit, Viggo plays Nikolai in EASTERN PROMISES, an up and coming gangster in the Russian Mafia.  The film still bears Cronenberg's indelible fingerprints, and when the violence erupts, its like an explosion in an otherwise quiet world where no one really says what they mean, and no one speaks up for fear of their own quick demise.  The centerpiece of the film is an attempted hit on Nikolai while he's in a Turkish bath.  Mortensen plays the extremely violent edge-of-your seat fight scene completely nude, uncompromising in his insistence on authenticity as an actor where others may have opted for a less revealing approach.

Ed Harris's traditionally paced and styled Western may have put a lot of viewers off, but it was a great vehicle for an engaging story and some great acting from Mortensen, who carries around one of the biggest shotguns I've ever seen as Everett Hitch, sidekick and companion to Harris's Virgil Cole.  The gun - Mortensen's idea - becomes an extension of Everett, as much a part of his character as any other mannerism an actor might bring to the role.  Mortensen plays Hitch as loyal, but always willing to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing something he holds dear, which is really what most Western heroes are all about.


Anonymous said...

Applause for your Viggo retrospective. I must mention, however, that there are a few of us out here who care a great deal for Mr. Mortensen with ample reason. Thank you for highlighting a few of them.

matt said...

Oh, I mean Americans in general, not the ones who "get it." Thanks for the applause, though...I'm glad to know someone out there is reading.

hermione0 said...

Nice retrospective, but I wonder if you've seen Alatriste? It hasn't been released in thestates but there are ways around that, and it was done in 2006. Some of Viggo's best work, IMO.

matt said...

i've been looking forward to it since then, and given that my to-watch list is usually so long, i usually just wait until something's available by some means i couldn't go to jail for...plus, i couldn't wait to see [REC], and got it off the web, only for the file to screw up halfway through, and have no subtitles. so...i'll just stick it out. there's plenty out there to watch in the meantime.