In his post Lord of the Rings career, Viggo Mortensen have proven to be more than just an adept swordsman in Middle-earth. Since those days the elusive actor has disappeared and reappeared in a series of complex and enticing roles, usually those by iconic director David Cronenberg, ranging from Tom Stall in A History of Violence, to brutal Russian mobster Nikolai in Eastern Promises, and his surprising turn as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method.
Viggo’s winning streak continues in Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, playing Ben Cash, an unconventional existentialist patriarch of six children making their own path in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Ben has a philosophy: the world is a toxic and confused place. People live in distraction, eating things that barely qualify as food, a natural world around them going wasted as their minds go fallow and their bodies wither in front of their televisions. That’s why Ben has spared his children the blindness of society by putting them under heavy regimen of exercise balanced with an equal focus on sharpening the mind through books, and refining their power to critically analyze, banning such words as interesting, to describe works of art.
No matter how adept the Cash clan are at hunting-gathering, mountain climbing or analyzing perspective in Nabokov’s Lolita, the children are not prepared for the real world, lacking any real experience or interactions with other people, having turned into an inseparable wolfpack in the decade they have lived in exile.
Things become complicated following the death of Leslie (Trin Miller), Ben’s wife and mother of his brood, passes away. She’d been hospitalized with bipolar disorder, and now The Cash crew decides to head out on a road trip to New Mexico on a bus (named Steve) to crash the funeral. We learn that Leslie’s bitter father, Jack (Frank Langella), threatens to have his estranged son-in-law arrested if he shows up.
While the film’s mantra is to moralize that all the lessons of the world can be found in a book and the power of inquiry and discourse is long dead, Writer / director Matt Ross questions his characters, most specifically Ben and his parenting choices that can put his children in physical danger and prevents them from leading “normal” lives.
His eldest son, Bo (George MacKay), has been accepted into some of the best elite colleges in the country, the problem becoming how he’ll break the news to his father – who will most certainly disapprove. On the other hand, it’s apparent that other son Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) wants to distance himself from this nomadic and archaic lifestyle his parents have constructed for them.
Mortensen shines as the unflappable and somewhat arrogant patriarch dealing with dueling familial forces who see him as a wayward “hippie” with ludicrous values. He’s a man with all the knowledge of the world, yet too shortsighted to see how his agenda disallows his children their own freedom of choice. Mortensen’s best moments are where he comes face to face with Jack (Frank Langella), Leslie’s grim and disapproving father, and the antithetical traditional family of Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and Dave (Steve Zahn) and their two knuckleheaded boys.
His younger co-stars George McKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell also shine. Each will, in their own ways, charm audiences as the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher-kings, an impressive bunch of smarty pants that would put most self-proclaimed intellectuals to shame.
One of the best films of the year, Captain Fantastic is a charming, profound, and inquisitive look at a family living on the outskirts of society without being overly sententious or preachy. A celebration of intellectualism, it carries the weight of alienation in a society that views such nonconforming lifestyles as oddities, illustrating that people prefer complacent living free from the burdens of knowledge. Beyond the intellectual musings, here is a touching story of the bonds between family, with a surprisingly emotional complexity that resonates until the very end.