Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Close, but no Straw Dogs: Viggo Mortensen as a modern-day messiah in A History of Violence and the Lord of the Rings appendices.
“Kill me, motherfucker! Look what I got! I mean, look at me! You got everything, man! I mean, come on! Look what I gotta fucking go around with: fucking diapers, man! I got fucking diapers! I shit in my pants every day! I can’t walk, I can’t hump. You know? Go ahead and kill me, you cocksucker!”
– Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Carlito’s Way
Viggo Mortensen stands at a crossroads: down one path stands a ruggedly handsome, fabulously rich and famous Harrison Ford; down the other, a mustached Mark Hamill. Will Viggo, a defining lead character in this generation’s epic trilogy, go on to a life as Indiana Jones and Dr. Richard Kimble, or as “Cocknocker” in a Kevin Smith movie?
A History of Violence is Viggo’s second movie after The Lord of the Rings bumped him up several tax brackets, but since Hidalgo was his first, let’s call the latter the movie equivalent of a rock star’s side project on his own label that doesn’t count toward his legacy, and the former his official, major label follow-up.
Viggo is, for the time being, at least, a viable leading man, and Peter Jackson authoritatively established the role Viggo is best suited to as an above-the-line lead: Jesus. Viggo was stuck with the most uninteresting, conflict-free Christ figure in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and he managed to turn him into a great, memorable movie character. Tolkien, the Oxford philologist and classicist, the Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces exemplar par excellence, packed The Lord of the Rings trilogy full of more Jesuses than my grandmother’s walls, the main ones being Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn. Each is a paragon of Anglo virtue (wise, stoic, with a deep sense of White Man’s Burden, humble, all filtered through a dry sense of humor), all die, figuratively or literally (Gandalf falls in Moria to the Balrog; Frodo is stabbed by the Witch King on Weathertop, and is again wounded nearly to death by the Ring and Gollum on Mount Doom; Aragorn goes through something called the “Paths of the Dead”) only to emerge in a perfected, Savior of Humanity form (as Gandalf the White, the Ringbearer, and Elessar King of Gondor, respectively).
Aragorn had to be the most challenging to bring to the screen. Gandalf is full of mystery, gets all the good lines and moments, and wears the iconic accoutrements of wizardry. Frodo actually looks like he might give in to temptation on his journey, so that’s inherently interesting, dramatically-speaking, plus he gets to spend two movies interacting with Gollum, the most fully-realized character in Tolkien’s writings. But Aragorn is all manly virtue. He never falters. His path to victory never feels like it’s in doubt. He’s Jesus, without his moment of doubt in the garden. He’s too good to be an interesting character.
Aragorn was a role that probably no one could have played better than Viggo Mortensen. Viggo emotes near-toxic levels of dignity when he’s on-screen — as Aragorn, the Once and Future King of Man, has to — but he undercuts this with an earthiness and a sense of humor hidden behind his eyes. Like Jesus, the Viggo persona exists on both the High and the Low planes, the spirit and the body, part (cinema) God and part Man. Jim Caviezel, an actor who’s natural emotive register lies in a similar range to that of Viggo, gets the same kind of roles: the Christ-figure of Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, and Jesus Christ himself in The Passion of the Christ. But Caviezel lacks Viggo’s ability to slum it. Jim Caviezel would never laugh at a dirty joke; Viggo almost certainly tells them. Caviezel would never engage in on-screen analingus; Viggo….well, see below. Viggo, unlike Caviezel, manages to project dignity without mammoth self-importance, which is no mean feat. There’s deep humility and laughter somewhere in that earnest face. And Caviezel doesn’t have the range to play the skaggy Cuban paraplegic Viggo plays Carlito’s Way (see above quote), a small but memorable role that probably no one remembers he played because it took place long before Viggo was elevated to Aragorn by Peter Jackson. Viggo the Christ disappears into the role of Lalin. But skaggy Cuban paraplegic’s do not a star make; Christ roles do, and we can expect to see Viggo in a lot more of them.
Maybe the real reason he managed to pull Aragorn off so well was because, by all official accounts, he’s basically a modern-day Aragorn himself. Viggo’s greatest performance of his career might be in The Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition documentaries. If you watch enough of the Appendices, they start to double as propaganda for Viggo Mortensen’s Nobel Peace Prize bid. In it, we meet:
• Viggo the Renaissance Man: We learn that Viggo writes poetry; is an accomplished photographer; runs his own publishing house; speaks English, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and probably Elvish; is an accomplished painter (he actually painted the large murals in his artist’s studio in A Perfect Murder); is a jazz musician with three CDs; was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People; worked as a translator for the Swedish hockey team at the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Winter Olympics; was once ranked #10 on VH1’s “Hottest Hotties”’; was married to a punk rock chick for ten years; and has the same birthday as Snoop Dogg. (I am not making any of that up.)
• Viggo the Beastmaster: In order to get to know his horse, Viggo slept in the stables with it several nights. He bought the horse after production, and later married it. (I am making up the last part — the marriage was annulled.)
• Viggo the Brave: Viggo chipped a tooth during principal photography on LoTR and kept right on smiling. He broke two toes kicking an orc helmet and stayed in character. Everyone agrees: Viggo is one tough actor.
• Viggo of Nazarea: Every production department talks about how down-to-earth and friendly Viggo was to the regular people like them on the film. The stunt people raved about how he would get carried away during the fight scenes, and how they loved him as a brother-in-arms for it; the weapons trainer raves about what a natural Viggo was with the sword; one of the horse wranglers revealed Viggo bought a horse for her when she said she liked it; Viggo raves about his fellow actors more intensely than veterans of Omaha Beach talking about their band of brothers. He probably snuck into the computer lab and rendered the Pelennor Fields battle scene all by himself, for all we know.
• Viggo the Practical Jokester: Sean Astin was having trouble working up the courage for his screen-kiss at his wedding scene, so Viggo grabbed the actor who played Pippin and kissed him off-camera to get him in the mood. I think Viggo also mooned some people at some point.
Viggo is the runaway, breakout star of the Appendices. It’s a marvelous performance, and if you watched it, the Viggo Persona sinks in even deeper than his turn as Aragorn in the movies proper.
Which brings us to Viggo’s first high-profile, post-LoTR movie. Viggo plays another Jesus in A History of Violence, but it’s a Last Temptation of Christ Jesus — a Jesus with a past.
Though the chorus of hallelujahs is far from unanimous, the word “masterpiece” is being whispered in connection with A History of Violence. Some of the press:
“A masterpiece of indirection and pure visceral thrills, David Cronenberg’s latest mind-blower is the feel-good, feel-bad movie of the year.” — New York Times
“Cronenberg, like Count Base on the piano or Hemingway on the page, has mastered the art of economy, paring down his work to its thematic essentials without any loss, and even some gain, in textured complexity.” — Toronto Globe and Mail
“Is A History of Violence a popular genre movie, soliciting visceral, unthinking responses to its violence while evoking westerns and noirs? Or is it an art film, reflecting on the meaning, implications, and effects of its violence, and getting us to do the same? David Cronenberg's genius here is the way he makes it impossible to settle this question.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
So … is it really that good?