Viggo Mortensen became a star late in his career. The actor had toiled as a fine character actor for more than twenty years before landing the plum role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, literally days before shooting started, which made him an international star. He brought to the role valor, and there may not be a greater moment in the trilogy than Aragorn turning to Gandalf and whispering “for Frodo…” before charging into battle and certain death at the foot of Mount Doom. Mortensen should have been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King (2003) and again for his riveting performance in A History of Violence (2006) as a small town man hiding a terrible past.
He WAS nominated for Best Actor for his superb performance as an under cover cop posing as a driver for a Russian mafia leader in Eastern Promises (2007), just a magnificent piece of acting. Yet in the years since he has been oddly out of the picture, a cameo here and there, but no film that he carries with his great talent.
In ‘Captain Fantastic’, Mortenson is brilliant as Ben, one half of a counter culture couple who have decided to home school their six children and live off the grid deep in the forest, miles away from even a telephone line. As the film opens, his wife has committed suicide, leaving Ben to raise the brood. He has always treated his children as young adults, teaching them a great deal, but also sheltering them from the very real world that at some point they will move into on their own. When his father in law makes it clear he will not have Ben’s wife cremated, Ben loads the kids in the van for a road trip and off they go to make sure his wife’s wishes are met.
Though Ben sticks fiercely to his beliefs that his children are better off out of the society he has grown to despise, he gradually sees that they will have to eventually make their own way, and very soon. His son is college age and wants to go, to try his life on his own, while his father wishes to protect him from what turned him against the world.
Mortenson is outstanding in the film giving one of those rare performances that deserve the term breathtaking. There is just not a false not in it, the work is entirely original, he captures the inner rage of a rebel still at war with whatever he rebelled against, the grief of a man who lost his wife and cannot help but blame himself, and the overwhelming fear of having to raise six young kids on his own. Just under the surface there is a genuine terror that the actor superbly conveys. He loves his children more than life, and that above all, comes into play. Ben is a gentle man, angry that his wife checked out leaving him behind, and though up for the job of single father he is not naive to think he is entirely equipped for the job, knowing love is often not enough. There is no question he loves them, but teaching them to shoplift does not fall under good parenting. That said he teaches them to do what is necessary to survive. It s a powerful and moving performance, the kind that lands an Oscar nomination, which could happen for the actor next January if enough people see this enjoyable film.
Frank Langella, unfairly painted as a villain, is equally good as the wounded father, trying to understand Ben’s choices and the reasons his daughter felt the need to kill herself. He too wants what is best for his grandchildren, and that may not be remotely near to what Ben wants.
The film is not perfect, and from time to time we have been down this road before, rogue parent taking on the world. But the sheer force and brilliance of Mortensen makes it worth the journey, and the fact the kids are realistic film kids, not coy or cute, but real, with honest issues.