Viggo Mortensen may be the most taciturn actor in American movies today. His weatherworn, handsome face (with a cleft chin to rival Kirk Douglas) communicates character with only the slightest of movement, with rarely a hint of premeditation. You can’t slack off while watching one of his performances; his delicate way of registering feeling requires your utmost attention. In Captain Fantastic, Mortensen plays the dogmatic paterfamilias of a brood of six civilized savages living off the grid somewhere in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The child-rearing practices of this hippie-survivalist are unorthodox, to say the least: He nurtures their minds by versing them in Marxist theory, quantum physics, and Vladimir Nabokov, and trains their bodies to kill wildlife for food, to scale sheer cliffs for disciplined strength, and to defend themselves (to the death) against some unspoken possibility in the future. At times a benevolent papa, other times a dictatorial cultist, an unbending Ben believes the unsentimental education he provides his children will save them from the outside world, a conviction Mortensen conveys in the man’s confident facial expressions and taut body language. But when the heartbroken family leaves their cocooned idyll to venture out into an American landscape of fast-food obesity and unfettered consumerism to attend a funeral, Ben finds himself outside the comfort zone he’s created, and his once unyielding certainty begins to falter. Look closely and you can see the change in the understated shift of Mortensen’s expression and posture. Does father really know best?
There’s a retro anti-establishment vibe in Captain Fantastic that’s nostalgic, though hardly quaint. The geographic setting, the mode of transportation (a bus!), and the rebellion against authority all echo the work of Sixties-era writers like Ken Kesey, with Ben’s brood serving as a younger (and non-drug-fueled) version of the counterculture author’s Merry Pranksters. In his first feature-length film, writer/director Matt Ross, who plays the egomaniacal tech-king Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley, keeps it together fairly well until the film takes a predictable turn in contrasting the lifestyle of Ben’s family with their relatives’ way of life (the potshots don’t require much aim) and, more critically, in prompting Ben to re-evaluate the choices he’s made for his kids when one of them barely escapes serious injury. (Under today’s social and legal codes, he would likely be charged with child abuse.) For a while, the freeing experience of the clan’s nonconformity gets tamped down, and the movie appears headed toward some kind of moralized conclusion. Once back on familiar ground, however, Captain Fantastic rights itself toward as happy an ending as possible, without too much compromise. In the movie’s last scene, Ross sustains a long take that makes the best of Mortensen’s subtle gift for conveying so much using so little. A bemused look has seldom appeared so content and so yearning at the same time.
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