In “A History of Violence,” Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an Indiana family man. Unfortunately, when he becomes a hero by foiling a robbery, the attention brings Philadelphia gangsters to town. It turns out “Tom” is actually Joey Cusack, a former mobster who fled town and started over after he scarred “made man” Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Joey’s struggles to suppress his violent urges worsen and he has to confront his vengeful brother Richie (William Hurt).
In “Eastern Promises,” Mortensen is Nikolai Luzhin, a heavily tattooed Russian gangster. Nikolai is the bodyguard of Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the closeted son of local boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He’s also not actually a mobster, but an undercover FSB agent. Things get complicated when a nurse named Anna (Naomi Watts) delivers the child of a young girl Semyon raped.
Grayer characters like Stall/Cusack and Nikolai were a real change of pace for Mortensen. He had just played Aragorn, as pure-hearted a hero as you can get, in “The Lords of the Rings.” During a 2021 Q&A, Mortensen explained how a key similarity between Cusack and Nikolai led to similar demands on both his performances:
“The similarity of the two characters was that they were pretending to be something. They were not, and they both required a certain stillness trusting that the character would come across in key moments with very little gesture, physical movement, just subtle things.”
Mortensen’s assessment is correct. Tom Stall is an evil man trying hard to be a good one. Nikolai is a good man playing the part of a villain. Since both men were wearing invisible masks, their physicality needed to reflect that. Notice how Stall never flinches during moments of violence, not even when his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) blows Fogarty away with a shotgun.