By John H. Foote
Green Book was the talk of TIFF just five hours after the press screening, where the film was greeted with prolonged applause. “See Green Book” was spoken in the hallways of the Scotiabank Cinema and in the audiences as they waited for the next film to begin. That is how fast the Oscar race changes, because after the film had screened it leaped into the Oscar race as Best Picture, and actor Viggo Mortensen became the actor to beat for Best Actor.
The acceptance of the role of Aragorn in the extraordinary The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-02-03) thrust the publicity shy Mortensen into stardom, though he remains low key, one of the most elusive stars working in movies today. Mysterious, downright isolated, he works when he feels like it, he takes roles he believes in, working in films he believes in and will not go the way of the average Hollywood star. In a business where integrity often has no place, Mortensen is an actor filled with integrity, who speaks his mind, who is brutally honest, and a purely decent fellow.
He went out of his way to introduce himself to my wife Sherri when she was struggling with brain cancer, she would live another eight months but he took the time during his time in Toronto to promote a film to meet her and chat with her. He did not have to do this, he did it because he wanted to do it. That is Mortensen.
His work onscreen is what I admire, but how can you not like a man who does that for the one you love?
Mortensen was a character actor landing plum roles from time to time in big films but more likely to be seen in independent films. After his huge success in The Lord of the Rings trilogy he was finally a bonafide star, but the most unusual of stars. He has not attached himself to any blockbuster, despite the offers, he has not caved in to do a super hero film, despite offers, he chooses what he wants to be in.
In the fifteen years since the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings, he has given an array of brilliant lead and supporting performances, but in deciding his 10 best I found myself reaching back into the nineties for a couple of his finest lesser known performances.
He is at this writing, the odds on front runner for Best Actor for his broad, wonderful performance as bouncer Tony Lip in Green Book, the unexpected hit of TIFF, expected to be a huge box office success. Embraced by audiences and critics, it has massive appeal, and should do just great. Though he has deserved the Academy Award before, this might finally get him to that winners podium clutching that little golden man.
10. Appaloosa (2006) — As Everett, the deputy to Ed Harris’ Cole, Mortensen is the strong, silent marksman who backs up whatever his friend says. There are strong hints of homo-eroticism in the film, though Cole falls in love with the very promiscuous Allie. When she comes on to Everett, needing attention, he makes it clear, “we’re both with Cole”. Loyal, dangerous, he understands the only way to get Cole out of danger is to gun down the equally talented gunslinger Bragg, who he calls into the street. Mortensen is perfect in the film, looking like a gunfighter, moving like one, and killing with the talents of one. Nicely directed by Ed Harris, he unselfishly gives Mortensen several great scenes for himself.
9. The Prophecy (1997) — I never understood why Al Pacino, when portraying Satan in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) he felt the need to shout every line of dialogue, to give such a loud, over the top performance. Watching Mortensen portray the Devil in this bizarre little independent film is a treat because he is so intensely quiet, because he can be. He is frankly, terrifying as Satan because he is so confident in his power. Why would the devil have to raise his voice about anything? For me, this would be the devil, reptilian, but confident. Famous for being a Christopher Walken film, and he is as always great, but Mortensen steals every scene he is in.
8. The Indian Runner (1991) — Sean Penn began his directing career writing and directing this film based on the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman. Penn had the courage to cast two relative unknown movie actors at the time, David Morse and Mortensen, as brothers, one good, Mortensen portraying the one who cannot stay out of trouble. There is a restlessness in Frank that he cannot control, and no matter how hard he truies he cannot stay out of trouble. The brothers are close, but when Joe gave up farming to become a deputy sheriff he takes his job seriously. Called to a bar one night he discovers his brother has killed a man in a bar fight. Does he arrest him? Mortensen is excellent in the film, radiating danger and menace, though the scenes with his brother, Morse have a gentle love within them. Frank was not always a violent man. Though well reviewed the film never really found an audience despite a strong reaction at TIFF in 1991.
7. A Dangerous Method (2011) – Working for the third time with his friend David Cronenberg, Mortensen portrays Freud, who with Jung, attempt to solve the problems of a crazed young woman given to fits of hysteria. Dignified as Freud, even smug, Mortensen settles into the role nicely, understanding he is part of a trio ensemble, and happy to be so. The scenes between Freud and Jung, portrayed by the great Michael Fassbender crackle with energy as the two great actors beautifully bounce off one another. As their relationship weakens and dissolves, their is a great sadness to Freud who feels something terribly lost. It is a quietly intense performance that was nominated for the Golden Globe as supporting actor and won the Canadian Genie for the same.
6. A History of Violence (2006) — A small town business owner is forced to kill two men who attempt to rob him and kill his customers. Without fear he grabs a gun and shoots them down with absolute confidence. When the news flashes his face, mobsters arrive from Philadelphia calling him by a different name, insisting he is a hit man for the mob. His wife knows him only as as he has presented himself for the past twenty years, raising their two children, working quietly in his diner. But the mobsters persist and when his son is threatened he takes control of the situation and kills them with great efficiency. He is the hit man. He drives to Philadelphia to offer peace with his brother, an embittered mob boss who wants him dead. So he lashes out again, killing his brother and his henchman before making the drive home. Will his family accept him knowing his past? Can anything ever be the same? Mortensen gave a profoundly fine performance in the film surrounded by great character actors Maria Bello, Ed Harris and best of all William Hurt. Critics adored the film, Mortensen deserved the nomination for Best Actor he did not get.
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-02-03) — Never is he as regal in the trilogy as he is when facing certain death, he turns to Gandalf the White and whispers “For Frodo” who they think has perished trying to destroy the cursed ring. He says those words with such love, warmth, and then charges into battle, the army behind him following him. As Aragorn, the rightful King of Gondor, he battles his way back to the throne, protecting the little hobbits sworn to carry the cursed ring to the fires of Mount Doom. Majestic, his is a powerfully confident performance. Finally crowned, accepting tributes, he encounters the little hobbits who go to kneel to him. Stopping them, understand their extreme sacrifices, her says “My friends, you bow to no one” and drops to a knee in honour of his friends. Never was a man more of a king than Aragorn at that moment. Rarely has an epic been so fine in exploring the intimate relationships of its characters.
4. Captain Fantastic (2016) — Having raised his family off the grid, teaching them the forest, finding food, training hard so they are prepared for anything, their world comes crashing down when their mother and his wife dies, committing suicide. Ben (Mortensen) is an anarchist who has taught his children his beliefs in living without technology, the beauty of co-existing with nature, left wing politics, survival techniques and living off the land. But can he do it alone? His six children adore him, though one of the younger boys is quietly raging at his father for losing his mother, laying blame. War is waged with his wifes father, who threatens to have Ben arrested if he shows up at the funeral, which of course he does. His children mistrust their father, but when he decides to leave them with their grandfather, they stow away on the bus to go with their father. Eventually he exhumes his wife and in honouring her wishes cremates her body. The film is a profound study of love, with Mortensen at his very best as a loving father and loyal husband. Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor.
3. Eastern Promises (2007) — Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance as Nikolai, a driver for the head of the Russian mob in London, England, Mortensen is extraordinary in the film. Loyal, he gets rids of the bodies when needed, kills when needed, and makes sure the mobsters son stays out of trouble. When one of the prostitues dies in chuldbirth her diary is found and could destroy the old man in charge. After befriending the mid-wife who found the diary, Nikolai becomes her protector. (SPOILER) Gradually it is revealed Nikolai is deep under cover, a detective who has infiltrated the Russian mob and cannot be compromised. After being badly injured in a nude fight in a bath house, he knows the only man who could give that order is the old mob boss to whom he has sworn loyalty. He makes dangerous decisions that could have killed or worse, exposed, but protects the innocent child and mid-wife. Mortesen is brilliant in the film, bravely shooting a nude scene, a fight no less that drew applause in the screening I attended. A stunningly good performance that placed him among the elite actors of his generation.
2. Green Book (2018) — When the head of the Copacabana calls “Tony Lip” that is his signal to move in and start punching out whoever has started the trouble in the club. Tony is a bouncer, a hard working family man who adores his wife and children, but moves in dangerous circles. When the Copa closes for renovations he is out of work but offered a job driving an elegant black man through the American south (this is the sixties folks) because the black musician believes he may encounter issues and may need a protector. They are as different as oil and water, but gradually learn from one another, accept the differences between each other and when Tony hears him play he knows he is in the midst of genius. The racial prejudice sickens Tony, he cannot believe his friend can be hired to play a fancy hotel and entertain the white people, but he cannot dine there, and use the toilet. More than once he pulls his friend out of a jam, and accepts who he is when the musician is caught having a homosexual encounter. “I work at the Copa…” he says, knowing it takes all kinds. The film is a beautiful study of an evolving friendship, and the actors, Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are superb. At this writing, Mortensen is the front runner for the Academy Award as Best Actor, and he would be a perfect winner for his broad, wonderful performance. Such a warm lovely film.
1. The Road (2009) — As the unnamed father in this powerful film about the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, Mortensen did the finest work of his career, though the top five performances could be interchangeable. In this grey, dark film, the earth is a dying planet, and the father seeks only to get his son to Florida where at least the weather is warm. The road to the south is difficulty because some groups of people have taken to becoming cannibals in order to have fresh meat, and they father and son actually encounter a farm, where the livestock is people, chained in the basement. Mortensen does most of his acting with his eyes and body, his eyes filled with sadness at what was, at the memories that wash over him from time to time about his wife, and his body slowly is breaking down with radiation sickness. He often appears selfish in refusing to help others but understands no one is helping them either and they must get to where it is warm. Only a brief evening with an old man melts him a little, the old fellow having a son once, seeing Mortensen’s boy as an angel. It is one of those near silent performances in which the silences speak volumes, the eyes telling the story, or at least his story. Shame on the Academy, I did not see a better performance in 2009.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.