After his recent Oscar Nomination for Captain Fantastic, it’s worth shedding some light on the earlier work of the very diverse and intense Viggo Mortensen. Many haven’t seen, or even heard of, The Indian Runner which was one of the first leading roles that Viggo was given. Released in 1991 and directed by Sean Penn, the story is based on the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman about two brothers in 1960’s Nebraska who live very different lives. David Morse plays Joe, the elder brother who always looks out for his younger sibling Frank (Mortensen). Their relationship becomes complicated, however, as Joe is a policeman while Frank, having just returned from Vietnam, has some personal demons which lead to him being constantly in trouble with the law.
It’s a downbeat and powerful human drama about family struggles and sibling rivalry that benefits from a simmering intensity from Mortensen. Frank is a tortured soul and Mortensen manages to convey his dangerous edge and unpredictability with simple glances and subtle facial expressions. There’s always something going on behind his eyes but the masterclass in Viggo’s performance is the constant guessing as, despite his tough exterior, there’s a softness and vulnerability trying to break out.
It’s a mesmerising and multilayered performance where Mortensen is also afforded the chance to let loose. Frank’s untamed, wild nature and propensity for booze, women and violence often gets the better of him and scuppers any positive plans he makes. Despite his best efforts to integrate into society, he struggles to shed his criminal tendencies. He’s a torn man, desperately seeking peace, and it’s this very struggle that makes him all the more intriguing and heartbreaking.
Mortensen may be a more household name now due to The Lord of the Rings trilogy but it’s his work in the quieter, more independent films that tend to resonate more. The Indian Runner was one of the first films to showcase the fundamental honesty that he can bring to a role and the depth and substance that he brings to Frank, remains some of his finest work to this day.
Oscars? – No Chance. He should have been nominated but it wasn’t until 2008 that Mortensen was recognised with his first Oscar nomination for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. That would have been 17 years after The Indian Runner and 23 years after his feature debut in Peter Weir’s Witness. Mortensen is, without doubt, one of the most under appreciated of American actors and the lack of recognition for his work as Frank Roberts is proof of that.
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