It’s kind of ironic that Viggo Mortensen has become somewhat of a symbol of rugged masculinity on the screen, because his best characters often undo that image. Like Michael Douglas before him, Mortensen frequently does movies that put the modern American male through some kind of brutal morality test. He finds the bruised souls of these characters, and shines even when he’s part of a large ensemble (Lord of the Rings.) However, he is at his best when he is front in center, paired with a director like David Cronenberg who has some mischief cooked up to counter his archetypal characters.
A History of Violence
In this masterpiece about identity from David Cronenenberg, Mortensen plays Tom Stahl, a man who may or may not be hiding a sinister past from his family. After he efficiently murders two bad men trying to rob his diner, Stahl is made an American hero. Mortensen never elevates him to that level, keeping him with the grime, dirt, and mystery of the story. Watching Tom slowly unravel who he really is and then desperately fighting it off wouldn’t work this well if a skilled actor weren’t playing him.
In this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Mortensen plays The Man. He has no name, but he’s no Clint Eastwood. Attempting at all costs to get his son through post-apocalyptic America to the coast, we see that this man has a love so strong for his son that it lights the world on fire. He does unthinkable things like holding a gun to his son’s head as assailants close in, and you believe the reality of it because Mortensen puts you in the grueling moment.
Mortensen helms this unconventional crime drama with a perfect Russian accent, playing in another David Cronenberg movie where identity and violence plague the characters. Nikolai’s identity is etched in his body with tattoos, shown at a piercing meeting before the Russian crime council. His now-immortal nude brawl in a bathhouse shows the brutality he has carved his out his reputation with, staining his ink covered body with another dark substance. He finds a soft spot for Naomi Watt’s Anna, adding another layer to a character already alive with rich complexity.
The Lord of the Rings
Arguably the films that put him in the movie spotlight, Mortensen won over the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere as the warrior Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. You can sense him having a ball being totally immersed in this rugged warrior of the people. His speech and battle cry in the third film as the human army prepares to charge The Black Gate is one of Mortensen’s finest moments as an actor.
This western may not pack as much of a punch as its star, but Mortensen sure spits hellfire. As the ruthless Everett Hitch, he accompanies Ed Harris’ Virgil Cole on a journey to settle the town of Appaloosa as sheriffs. Bodies pile up in typical western fashion, but Mortensen gets so into the role that you’re bound to have at least a good time watching an actor do the kind of role he loves.
Other notable performances: G.I. Jane, A Perfect Murder, and 28 Days.