For those of us following Viggo Mortensen’s film career with interest, his apparent retirement announcement last September fell upon sad ears. His latest film, the post-apocalyptic The Road, based upon Cormac McCarthy’s tale of a father and son traveling through a destroyed landscape, opened to mixed reviews and a disappointing limited release, and whatever one’s opinion of this polarizing film, its reception made it a poor choice as a swan song for this consistently intriguing and honest actor.
Fortunately, the rumours of his retirement were exaggerated, and far from withdrawing from the profession, we now have reports of two more upcoming Mortensen roles. As if this news was not enough cause for celebration, both of the roles will be with the equally intriguing director David Cronenberg. As the final icing on the cake, the second movie will be a sequel to Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, for which Mortensen scored a best actor Oscar nomination in 2007.
Mortensen’s retirement rumours came on the heels of an exhausting run of promoting five movies almost back to back, two of them, Good and Appaloosa, in the same year. In an interview with Men’s Journal, the actor said, “I have no plans to do another movie. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m open to seeing how I feel in a while, but right now I’m not saying yes to anything.” Despite the interviewer noting he wasn’t sure how seriously the actor meant his words to be taken, and even taken seriously the statements point more to a break than a complete retirement, rumours immediately spread that the acting world was losing one of its most interesting artists. And indeed, Mortensen did not appear to be accepting any jobs for some time.
That changed this spring when friend and two-time collaborator David Cronenberg lost one of his lead actors in his upcoming film, The Talking Cure. The movie is based on Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play of the same name and examines the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, especially when Jung becomes involved with his first patient, a young Russian woman named Sabina.
With Cronenberg’s ongoing fascination with the construction of identity and a cast including Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Freud, Michael Fassbender as Jung, and Keira Knightley as Sabina, the project looked like a winner. It almost capsized, however, when Waltz left to do Water For Elephants in March, leaving The Talking Cure, due to start production in May, without its Freud. Cronenberg went to his friend Mortensen, a choice that satisfied any naysayers on the project’s viability without Waltz. In fact, it may well be Waltz who looks back and shakes his head at his choice to leave. The combination of Cronenberg and Mortensen has always been a potent one.
The two first teamed up in 2006 for the critically acclaimed A History of Violence, nominated for the Golden Palm award at Cannes and for best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor at the Academy Awards. In 2007, their collaboration in Eastern Promises sparked talk of the kind of muse relationship seen with Burton/Depp and Scorsese/DiCaprio. Many critics saw the two movies as complementary examinations of identity and what lies beneath. GreenCine’s Michael Guillén wrote:
"With calm exactitude and a stern eye, [Cronenberg] suggests that the propensity for violence within each individual is the truest source of transgression, albeit hidden and disguised beneath the skin, if not within the constructions of biography. With A History of Violence he stunned audiences with how thin the veneer of civilization truly is and how the past will hunt and reveal you. In his most recent effort - Eastern Promises - he collaborates once again with A History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen to notate inherent violence (the marketing slogan says "sin") as marked on the skin through a criminalized system of initiatory tattoos."
Those tattoos were an integral part of Eastern Promises’ thematic exploration of layers of identity and they are equally helpful in illuminating what makes Mortensen’s and Cronenberg’s partnership tick. It was Mortensen who actually came up with the idea for the tattoos during his meticulous research for his role and Cronenberg who delightedly accepted the idea, realizing how well it fit with his theme of the authentication of identity.
Besides this willingness to collaborate, the two share an approach to filmmaking. According to Mortensen, he begins his process by analyzing and almost obsessively researching his characters, but he then lets go of the research at a conscious level on the set so he can be fully in the moment. He says of Cronenberg, “I see him as working in exactly that way. And that's, I think, why we have such a good shorthand."
The level of trust between the two led to the scene Eastern Promises is most remembered for: Mortensen’s naked knife fight in a bathhouse with two rival gang members. As David Cronenberg discusses on WNYC Radio, it was actually the actor’s decision to do the scene naked.
Eastern Promises, though a critical success with many award nominations, was not a box office success, gathering a worldwide theatrical take of $56,105,902. However, there has been talk of a sequel for years, with rumours finally coming to a head this March on Deadline.com that Focus Features has green lit the as yet untitled sequel, with Cronenberg, Mortensen, and original screenwriter Steve Knight all on board, production hopefully to start this winter after The Talking Cure wraps. No word yet on whether Vincent Cassel will be back for the film, though he is rumoured to be in The Talking Cure.
I hope Cassel will be included in the sequel, as his storyline is the one that raised the most questions at the end of the original film. The first question with any sequel is whether there is any reason to continue the story. For so many films, the answer is no, and Cronenberg has avoided doing any sequels to his films to date. However, with Eastern Promises, he said, “In this case, I thought we had unfinished business with those characters.” That unfinished business centres on whether Mortensen’s Nikolai accomplishes his goal of running the Russian crime syndicate in London and what it may cost him. Not only is he risking his freedom as he goes so deep undercover, his government handler may cut him loose, he also risks violating his own code of ethics so completely, he no longer knows who he is. The person around whom this internal struggle would most likely play out is Cassel’s Kirill, the heir apparent who loves his rival.
Nikolai’s relationship with the Russian crime boss’s son, Kirill, is the most intriguing in the original film. Nikolai takes care of the younger feckless man and he is well aware that Kirill not only relies upon him, he is attracted to him, although homosexuality is not tolerated in this subculture. Cronenberg noted that Nikolai ruthlessly exploited his charge’s attraction to him throughout the film, and their final scene together in which Nikolai comforts Kirill is very ambiguous. To the director, “the Nikolai character is ultimately so mysterious that you don’t know if it’s pure manipulation or if there’s real compassion there.” And that seems an excellent reason to make a sequel.
I’ll be in line for both films, assuming nothing happens to derail either. I’m a fan of both Mortensen and Cronenberg individually. Together, they are on track to creating an enduring film legacy which raises the bar on authenticity and originality.