2017 Film Essays

The Tattoos Tell the Story: Viggo Mortensen’s Painted Body

Sixteen years separate two essential Viggo Mortensen performances in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner (1991) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007). Far afield from Middle Earth, Mortensen uses his body to tell the story of his character in each film, both examinations of the contradictory nature of his characters’ inner lives. The characters Mortensen plays in these films embody a multitude of contradictory spaces at once, which the actor communicates through his physical presence.

The Indian Runner, which is based on the song “Highway Patrolman” from Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 acoustic album Nebraska, is about two small-town brothers in the late 1960s. Joe Roberts (David Morse), the older brother, is a state trooper and family man. His brother Frankie (Mortensen) is a Vietnam veteran returning from a tour of duty overseas. The story follows the narrative of Springsteen’s song, as Joe, the upstanding lawman, struggles to decide how to control Frankie’s behavior as it becomes increasingly lawless. It culminates in Frankie’s brutal, motiveless murder of a local bartender, and Joe’s subsequent pursuit of him as he makes a run for the state’s border. It concludes, as the song does, with Joe pulling over to the side of the road and letting Frankie gun his getaway car into the distance, as the police officer is unable to apprehend the criminal. As Springsteen’s lyrics say, “When it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.”

The film is an in-depth examination of the nightmare of war, as it posits that Frankie’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of his service in Vietnam exacerbate his already anarchic tendencies. Though Morse is top-billed, and his Joe is given voice over narration that aligns the audience with his character, the film is really Mortensen’s, as he gives its most dynamic performance, making Frankie an enigmatic, unpredictable character. It was Mortensen’s first great role.

Eastern Promises, coming well after Mortensen was firmly established as a Hollywood actor of substance and commitment, was his second collaboration with body horror director Cronenberg, who was himself in the midst of something like a reinvention. Their first film together, A History of Violence (2005), was a small-town neo-noir about the monster hiding within a seemingly normal man, and what happens when the past comes rushing up to meet someone who has tried to run as far away from it as he can.

The actor-director team followed their first successful pairing with another deep examination of the difference between what is seen and unseen, and the power of disguise. Eastern Promises is set in London, and stars Naomi Watts as Anna, a nurse who becomes invested in solving a mystery that lands on her hospital’s doorstep. Her quest to find out who was responsible for the death of a young, pregnant Russian girl (whose premature baby survived) leads her to a local enclave of transplanted Russian gangsters, led by cold-blooded boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). She establishes a strange trust with Nikolai (Mortensen), Kirill’s driver, who is more than he seems — in truth, he is a Russian intelligence operative working deep undercover to infiltrate the mob, a secret he keeps from all other characters in the film (save his London police handler), including Anna, through its concluding moments. Together, Anna and Nikolai discover that Semyon is responsible for the pregnant girl’s death, and arrange for him to be arrested for her rape and murder. The film concludes with Nikolai having assumed Semyon’s place at the table, presumably on the verge of disrupting the gang’s activities from within.

Though these films are wildly divergent in their respective subject matters, as well as in their directors’ stylistic approaches, they are unified by a crucial central performance by Mortensen, whose physical body is extravagantly on display in both features. Much is made, of course, of Eastern Promises’ brutal centerpiece, an assassination attempt on Nikolai, arranged by Semyon as a substitute for his own son’s life. The sequence is set in a Russian bathhouse, where Nikolai has been lured by Semyon’s associate Azim (Mina E. Mina). As a pair of black leather-clad Russian thugs ambush the completely nude Nikolai, he must fight for his life against their knives, the vulnerability of his exposed body a constant concern. The result is a purely visceral action scene, where the danger of the blades feels all the more immediate because of Mortensen’s bold choice to do the scene completely naked, his prolonged full frontal nudity a rarity in mainstream film. Every slash he receives cuts deep, every wet smack of his body against the slick, tiled floor pounds hard. Cronenberg’s direction of the scene, much of which plays out in wide shots that showcase Nikolai’s total absence of protection, takes his cinematic concern with body horror and drags it firmly into the real world.

The Russian bathhouse scene, however, was not the first time Mortensen had appeared fully nude on screen. In Penn’s The Indian Runner, sixteen years prior, his body is also on display, again in a moment that emphasizes his character’s complete vulnerability. After finding out that his father (Charles Bronson) has committed suicide, Frankie heads back to his father’s house in a moment of emotional distress. Joe finds him there, in the room Frankie occupied before heading off to fight in Vietnam. The room’s production design shines new light on Frankie, as a Confederate flag drapes down from the ceiling, and he is surrounded by guns, including the pistol in his hand. He stands drunkenly, naked, looking at himself in the mirror. Joe, upon opening the door cautiously, sees the depths of Frankie’s weakness for the first time since his return from Vietnam. Up until this moment, Frankie has been coolly detached, taking the news of his mother’s death and Joe’s desire to help Frankie get a job with the same shrugged indifference. Here, in his childhood bedroom, Frankie is tacitly admitting to his brother that he needs help. Mortensen’s nudity here is more emotional than physical; it is through the revelation of his body that he truly strips his character’s inner life bare.

Frankie and Nikolai are also united in the shared collection of tattoos which stain their frames, and are most visible in these emotionally and physically naked moments. Frankie’s tattoos are a panoply of symbols, a collage of contradictory icons that seem united only in their collective communication that none of them mean much to Frankie at all. One bicep bears a hand of playing cards hooked by a horseshoe; on the left side of Frankie’s neck, two Nazi SS lightning bolts; a crucifix appears on his left breast, just above a circular spider web spiraling out from his nipple; most notably, his right shoulder is dotted with a black-inked question mark, as if to suggest the tattoos themselves are one big shrug, a mishmashed record of impulsive decisions made by a man careening through life with nothing left to lose. The war has broken him, written its impact all over his body not in physical scars, but in the emotional destruction reflected in the disconnection of each tattoo, a succession of nonsensical non-sequiturs.

In Eastern Promises, on the other hand, the tattoos have a specific purpose. As explained in the film by Nikolai’s London police contact, Russian mobsters have their life stories tattooed on their bodies. In effect, their credibility as outlaws is only guaranteed through the evidence inked on their flesh. The challenge for Nikolai, then, is to gain the trust of the mob family long enough to enter into their ranks, achieving the proof of his life of crime in the stars and crosses that adorn his body. Though Nikolai’s body is already tattooed, it is in an operatic sequence in the middle of the film where they are prominently displayed. Nikolai has been informed by Semyon that he will be allowed to formally join the family, and gains an audience with the heads of other gangs where he must stand nearly naked, showing them the evidence of his criminal activity. If they deem him worthy, he will be further tattooed, given stars on his shoulders and knees which signify his official membership.

Though this sequence is nowhere near as visceral as the bathhouse scene which follows soon after it, Mortensen’s body is similarly on display here. He sits in a chair, as the Russian gangsters read his flesh, commenting on his prison sentences, in evidence through the ink. A large crucifix bisects his chest; a stylized grim reaper looms over the right side of his stomach; Death is flanked by the Virgin Mary on his left side. A beautifully composed frame shows the tattooing of the stars on his knees, as Nikolai sits in one of Semyon’s restaurant’s booths, the artist shading in the official marking of his body as the property of the mob.

The narrative, however, has withheld crucial information, which will only be revealed after the bathhouse attack: that Nikolai is a law enforcement operative. All the tattoos, and their accompanying narrative which make up the characters’ knowledge of Nikolai, are called into question. They are subterfuge, a second skin that he must wear to hide amongst the dangerous crooks he is attempting to bring down. The newly added stars become the biggest ink-stained lie of all.

In both of these films, Mortensen’s nude body, and the tattoos that those nude scenes reveal, are used to achieve simultaneity in character. Frankie has no fixed point, no north star by which to travel. He is unmoored, naked and covered in symbols to which he has neither professed nor demonstrated any real loyalty. Nikolai is driven so doggedly towards his goal that his tattoos are similarly bankrupt of real meaning. For him, they are the clothes he must wear for others’ judgment, adopted only for his subversive purpose.

An actor’s physicality is crucial for communicating the emotional life of a character. In these two defining performances, Mortensen uses his body to display his characters’ essential tensions, as they ride the line between truth and lies, loyalty and betrayal, chaos and control. Like the tattoos that line his body in each film, these characters contain divergent, contradictory ideas in the same black-inked images.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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