My parents have enjoyed a long and mostly very happy marriage, but one of the few faint moments of tension came in the early 2000s, when my mother discovered the Lord of the Rings movies, and (more specifically) the actor Viggo Mortensen. Posters of Mortensen started to appear around the house and the VHS of The Two Towers was seldom very far from our video recorder. My father took all of this with commendable restraint, on the whole, but I think it is fair to say he was somewhat relieved when the series came to an end and appearances by the great man became both rarer and rather lower-profile.
However, perhaps the relationship counselling services of south-east Leicestershire should go to a state of high alert, for Viggo Mortensen has made another of his occasional returns to the big screen in Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic, one of those hard-to-categorise movies which struggles to get a wide release but are so often well worth hunting down. There is no Orc-battling or horse-licking on display here, but this is still a significant piece of film-making.
Mortensen plays Ben Cash, the devoted father of six children of various ages, all of whom he is raising and educating himself, deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. As Ben is a defiantly individualistic man (or, if you prefer, a raging loon), his curriculum includes not just languages and history, but also knife-fighting, rock-climbing, and a back-to-basics form of hunting (the opening sequence of the film depicts Ben's eldest son stalking and killing a deer using just a knife). The family celebrates the birthday of Noam Chomsky rather than Christmas.
Ben's wife has been away for some time seeking treatment for psychological problems, and then news reaches him that she has died and is soon to be buried. Her father (Frank Langella) is insistent that Ben and the children stay away from the funeral, which is being carried out in accordance with their desires rather than the terms of her will, but this is not the sort of thing which Ben pays much attention to. Loading the whole tribe into an old bus, he sets off across country to do right by the woman he loves...
There seems to be something about the road movie format which really lends itself to this kind of indie-ish comedy drama – I'm thinking of films like About Schmidt and Nebraska – but Captain Fantastic is a superior example of the form. Parts of it are very funny, parts are extremely moving, and above all it does raise some serious questions about the values our society has and what it means to be a good parent.
There is never any doubt that Ben is utterly devoted to his children and a deeply loving father, but his love can be quite tough sometimes and many people would doubtless find some of his parenting choices highly irresponsible (handing out lethal weapons as presents). The children are intelligent, literate, thoughtful, compassionate, and extremely healthy. But is he really preparing them to lead lives in the real world?
It's a question of what you consider to be the real world, a point which Ben himself makes in the course of the film. Much of the comedy arises from the clash of values between Ben and his children and the rest of the world – 'Is everyone sick? Why are they so fat?' asks one of the younger ones as they travel deeper into society – but there's a deeper issue here, of course: what kind of society is it that considers young people like these to be ridiculous misfits, and poorly educated, soon-to-be-obese X-Box addicts as paragons of normality? Is it just a case of a warped society producing warped citizens to populate itself?
The film is, naturally, broadly sympathetic to Ben and the children, and you're never quite laughing directly at them no matter how inappropriate or naive their behaviour becomes. Much of this, I suspect, is simply due to the casting of Mortensen in the role. One sometimes gets the impression that a lot of screen actors are relatively ordinary people, apart from being celebrities: they are possibly less interesting than the characters they play. I doubt this is the case with the poet, photographer, and painter Viggo Mortensen, who seems to have a rather more substantial hinterland than most, and the film seems to be tapping into his presence as a significant figure, in addition to this being the kind of otherworldly, shamanic role he always plays so well. This is the most impressive performance I've seen from Mortensen, the kind that makes you wish he did more films, although no doubt a significant portion of his fanbase will also be curious to get a glimpse of (ahem) the full Viggo, which goes on display for a little while here.
He is well supported by a brief but effective appearance from Langella, and the acting from the children is consistently rather good too. This is a consistently impressive movie, for the most part: the shifts in tone are well-handled, the questions that it raises are not over-laboured, and it genuinely manages to feel properly life-affirming at more than one point. Perhaps you have to cut the film some slack in the manner of its conclusion, but that's equally true of many other modern movies of considerably less substance than this one.
Captain Fantastic really defies conventional genre classification, but it's a smart and actually rather beautiful film which genuinely doesn't have an obvious weak link in it. Naturally this means you will probably struggle to find it in a mainstream multiplex near you. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, wheel on another sequel or remake...