Born in the 1950s to an American mother and Danish father, Viggo Peter Mortensen, Jr. has since become one of the most prolific, diverse, and understated actors of recent times. He is not only an accomplished actor, but a successful musician, poet, businessman, photographer, horse rider, and painter, as well as a fluent speaker of English, Danish, French, and Spanish, whilst also being conversational in many others languages. Behind the cameras, Mortensen has also proven useful: he has composed musical scores, painted on film sets, and helped out production companies with marketing and translating.
Viggo Mortensen has undoubtedly been a captivating actor throughout his entire career, working on internationally successful blockbusters, as well as small art house pieces, understated passion projects, and independent cinema from around the globe, often in languages other than his native tongue.
Not known to do things by half measures, Mortensen has been subsequently beaten up, frozen, and starved in the name of his art, enthusiastically going to extremes to justify the approach he takes to each and every role. A man who very much knows what he wants, Mortensen only works on the projects that are important to him and has delivered incredible performances in various genres, accomplishments that earned him a knighthood by the queen of Denmark in 2010.
Despite his diverse and mesmerising performances, not to mention his works in several other areas, Viggo Mortensen is rarely acknowledged as a fundamental and groundbreaking entertainer, a gifted performer like no other. Here are ten of his finest offerings to date.
10. The Indian Runner (1991)
“The Indian Runner” was the first film written and directed by veteran actor Sean Penn. Stepping behind the camera, Penn based the film upon Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman,” which revolves around two very different brothers in 1960’s Nebraska.
The brothers in question greatly vary in attitude and lifestyle, depicting two complementary arcs: David Morse plays Joe, a farmer-turned-small town officer of the law, whilst on the other side of the coin his brother, Frank, played by Mortensen, is a war veteran-turned-criminal.
A story of personal demons, family struggles, and trying to move forward, “The Indian Runner” is a powerful and acclaimed film of sibling rivalry complete with realistic characters and great performances, accomplished with a stunning supporting cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro, and Charles Bronson.
Viggo Mortensen is electric as the tattooed outlaw, troubled and full of demons, struggling with his life after the Vietnam War. He finds himself constantly in trouble with the law, and as a result, with his brother, Joe. He is both convincing and enthralling throughout the piece, providing great chemistry with David Morse.
The pair make for a believable family coupling and a heart-breaking relationship. “The Indian Runner” was one of the first films to showcase the incredible abilities of Viggo Mortensen, expertly captured through the masterful direction of Sean Penn.
9. Jauja (2014)
“Jauja” is an historical arthouse piece of surreal world cinema, filmed in Danish by the Argentinian art director Lisandro Alonso. It follows a Danish military captain, Gunnar Dinesen, played by Mortensen, who along with his teenage daughter, travel to an unknown desert away from Argentina.
At times, a highly demanding watch, this fascinating and thought-provoking film is beautiful and includes stunning score, composed by none other than Viggo Mortensen himself. “Jauja” is truly indescribable: what starts as a South American Western drama soon becomes a confusing, existential piece of art cinema. The film went on to win the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival 2014.
Mortensen, always with an eye for roles in obscure, genre-blending Western pieces, is mesmerising as the film’s lead, a moustache-wearing military man and father of teenager, showcasing his ability to speak the language of his father, one of the many languages in which he is fluent.
“Jauja” is a minimalistic film that aims for breath-taking visuals and a non-linear, and at times altogether absent narrative, showing Mortensen in an entirely different form, as he portrays a seeker full of complexity without the requirement of an in-depth script to hold your hand throughout. As well as acting and composing the haunting score, Mortensen was also a key figure in the film’s marketing and translation.
8. A Dangerous Method (2011)
Set prior to World War I, “A Dangerous Method” is a fictionalised biopic about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Starring Viggo Mortensen as Freud, and Michael Fassbender as Jung, and featuring superb performances from Vincent Cassel and the exceptional Kiera Knightley, the film circles a pair of belligerent physicians and friends and chronicles their turbulent relationship to Jung’s patient, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley).
The screenplay was produced by writer Christopher Hampton from his own stage show, “The Talking Cure,” which in turn was created from a fictional book based on the historical events, “A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein” by American novelist John Kerr. The film marks the third collaboration between director David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, following “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”
Despite incredible performances from all involved, the finest scenes are indisputably those between Mortensen and Fassbender, both of whom are spellbinding in their respective roles, forming a perfect onscreen partnership, full of tension.
David Cronenberg has debatably brought out the finest work of Viggo Mortensen over the years, casting him time and again in gripping roles, giving him a wide range of characters to play with and develop. Here, as Sigmund Freud, he is unconventionally witty and full of humanity, filling Freud with likeability and magnetism, an accomplishment he so frequently achieves.
7. Appaloosa (2008)
A satisfying genre film, based on the novel of the same name by American author Robert B. Parker, “Appaloosa” is written by, directed by, and starring veteran actor Ed Harris.
“Appaloosa” separates itself from other Westerns thanks to a smart script and great acting, which focuses heavily on Harris and Viggo Mortensen as the sheriff and deputy, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, respectively. The film follows them as they take control of the titular town and are put to the test by Jeremy Irons’ villainous rancher, Randall Bragg.
The film was praised for its gripping narrative as well as Ed Harris’ steady direction and control of the picture, despite his infrequency in the directing chair. The onscreen chemistry between Harris and Mortensen’s characters, both of whom expertly develop their characters throughout, provides an abundance of depth and emotion and gives an intriguing insight into to how relationships were established during the 18th century in the West.
Viggo Mortensen shows here that, in addition to the lone wolf-type character carrying a film, he can also portray bring his heavyweight skills to bear within a double act or ensemble, no matter who is at his side. A powerhouse performer more than capable of undertaking a number of roles with varying attributes and characteristics, Mortensen shines as a quiet, restrained killer in this subdued slow-burner.
6. Captain Fantastic (2016)
This quirky indie dramedy about a man who raises his family under unusual circumstances is one of the surprise hits of the year. It makes sense. The terrific ensemble come together to tell a story that’s as heartfelt as it is hilarious. Few movies from 2016 were able to make you laugh and cry within a five minute period. The script and the cast come together to create a movie that will make you feel more emotions than you thought you were capable of feeling.
The most memorable cast member in this movie is Viggo Mortensen, whose role as the head of the family is simultaneously humorous and touching. The character he portrays is a man who desperately struggles to figure out what is best for him and his children. He refuses to let society dictate how his children should be raised, but this also causes trouble for him along the way.
Mortensen gives us a character who is stubborn and often unlikable. At the same time, he gives us a character that’s easy to sympathize with. Ben is a mess of a father, but he’s one that obviously cares for his children. Mortensen’s ability to question our opinion on this character is what makes his performance so noteworthy. Ben is often an enigma, and we have Viggo Mortensen to thank for that.
Mortensen has earned a surprising amount of attention for this role. There was a time when people believed that his performance would be quietly forgotten. Recent attention from the Golden Globes and SAG awards proves that voters are just as nuts for him as the rest of us.