Every year, audiences discover films that they like or dislike, but they only embrace a handful of movies on a personal level, as if the filmmakers created the work especially for them. One of those is Bleecker Street’s “Captain Fantastic.”
Star Viggo Mortensen was honored this week at Variety’s Creative Impact Awards in Palm Springs. In his intro, chief film critic Peter Debruge hailed “Captain Fantastic” as “the performance of his career.” Debruge is right, but the film is not just a one-man show, as evidenced by the Cannes award for writer-director Matt Ross, and the SAG Award nomination for best ensemble (added to Mortensen’s own SAG nom).
Mortensen told Variety that audience members’ reactions have often been “fiercely personal,” because Ross has created people whose virtues and flaws are rarely depicted in movies. “The characters are so well written. They’re human and complex, which should be true of any script, but it is not easy to do — especially with a wide range of characters. The audience is rooting for them but sometimes wants to strangle them.”
Mortensen plays Ben, a widower who has raised his six kids in the wild, teaching them to challenge everything, from conventional thinking to junk food to the digital world. But Ben’s values are in turn challenged by his in-laws and eventually by some of the kids themselves (led by oldest son George MacKay). The film respects all of their viewpoints.
“One aspect of the story that people are identifying with is pride,” said Mortensen. “Pride often gets in our way. When Ben comes up against hard facts, he has to swallow his pride a bit. And that’s something we’ve all experienced,” but it isn’t often depicted so clearly.
“Captain Fantastic” arrived in 2016, when anger and confusion seemed to be spiraling out of control. Everyone wants things to be better, and the idealism and soul-searching are reflected in the film, which shows that there are no easy answers — but there is always hope.
Ross reminds audiences “There is a way out of this mess,” says Mortensen. “We just need to listen to each other, and to relate in a different way than we’ve gotten used to.”
After the Palm Springs ceremony, Ross told Variety, “I like characters whose imperfections surprise you. And I like characters who change. I didn’t make the film to preach or to teach a lesson. If I wanted to do that, I would have made a documentary. I want audience members to each have their own reaction on who’s right.”
After Mortensen first read the script, he wrote Ross a 15-page letter full of analysis, insight, and questions. Before filming began, Mortensen arrived with literally a truckload of props, costumes, books, and even a canoe.
As Ross smiled to Variety, “Film is all about time and money, and you never have enough of either. So you want to surround yourself with people who care. Viggo cares about things that matter.”
Ross said he’s long been a fan of Mortensen, who first made a splash in 1985’s “Witness” and showed his versatility in films including “A History of Violence,” “The Indian Runner,” “Eastern Promises,” “The Road,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and a slew of other films (in English and in Spanish).
Ross said with admiration, “You don’t catch him acting.”
To those who’ve seen the film, it’s not a surprise that audiences have continued to embrace it or that it’s getting Oscar buzz. The film encourages viewers to keep questioning everything, but reminds them they don’t need to have all the answers — and it’s OK to be wrong occasionally. “Captain Fantastic” assures audiences that it is a good thing to be human. That’s a message that is increasingly important, and that people don’t get often enough.