Viggo Mortensen: ‘Captain Fantastic’ could bring him back to Oscars and Golden Globes

With a score of 72 on MetaCritic and a rating of 82% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, “Captain Fantastic” transcends the standard quirky dramedy and offers a unique approach that expertly finds the balance between humor and pathos. Partly inspired by his somewhat unconventional upbringing, writer/director Matt Ross wanted to make a movie that would not only challenge himself professionally as a filmmaker but also personally as a father. He forges an underlying commentary that notes while everyone may not have the same values as a parent, the best of intentions are always present. Ross was widely praised at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, where “Captain Fantastic” competed in the Un Certain Regard category and won Best Director.

“Captain Fantastic” tells the story of Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), living off the grid in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and raising his six children away from the conformity and consumerism of modern society in favor of a survivalist and philosophical lifestyle. He would much rather his brood be able to defend themselves with knives and recite the words of Noam Chomsky than follow an institutionalized curriculum and have their identities suppressed by social constructs. Though wildly offbeat and idealistic at times, Ben’s liberated and brutally honest parenting proves to be surprisingly effective, that is until tragedy befalls their utopia and they are forced to venture into the outside world.

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An impromptu road trip to their mother’s funeral triggers an array of new experiences for the children whether visiting a diner with processed foods, awkwardly asking a girl on a first date, or mindlessly playing Xbox at their cousins’ house. For the most part, they are aware that these are just short term indulgences; however, when one son starts to favor the regularity of his vacation and a daughter nearly dies as a result of her father’s scheming, Ben finds himself forced to distinguish between what right and wrong really mean concerning those he loves the most.

Mortensen has been receiving much of the acclaim for his deeply affecting and heartfelt performance which touches upon nearly every emotion imaginable for one man in 120 minutes. Critics have expressed not seeing such passion and intensity from Mortensen since his masterful trifecta of Cronenberg-helmed roles in “The History of Violence” (2005), “Eastern Promises” (2007) and “A Dangerous Method” (2011). Each of these performances was met with awards attention from select critics circles with the last two earning him Golden Globe nominations.  His career-defining performance in the gangster drama “Eastern Promises” netted him his first and only Academy Award nomination. He lost both races for “Eastern Promise” to Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood”) and his supporting bid for “A Dangerous Method” to eventual Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”).

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With a Best Actor category not as airtight and predictable as most years, Mortensen has a good shot at landing a second nomination at this year’s Oscars and an even greater chance at the Golden Globes in the usually uncrowded and complaisant comedy category. His only drawback is would be the film’s relatively low profile. An actor could deliver the most celebrated, most impressive performance of his career but still be ignored because of competition from those in larger, much more far-reaching films.

Fortunately for Mortensen, there is plenty of precedence for his exact situation as many actors in small-scale indies before him have earned nominations including Javier Bardem in “Before Night Falls” (2000), Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson” (2006), Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” (2008), and Demian Bichir in “A Better Life” (2011). They all had the odds for Oscar gold stacked against them, yet the sheer weight of their performances and commendation from notable critics helped audiences and awards voters recognize their hard and otherwise hidden work.

Such could be the case for Mortensen, who was singled out by many critics in their rave reviews for “Captain Fantastic.” Below, a small sampling of this praise.

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Manohla Dargis (New York Times): “It’s left to Mr. Mortensen, who can make menace feel like vulnerability — and turn vulnerability into a confession — to keep the movie from slipping into sentimentality. He’s the most obvious reason to see it, although Mr. Ross’s insistence on taking your intelligence for granted is itself a great turn on. His characters don’t need smartphones to do their thinking for them; he assumes the same holds true of his audience.”

Peter Travers (Rolling Stone): “And Mortensen is just magnificent: His performance standing with his career-best work in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ‘A History of Violence’ and ‘Eastern Promises.’ He gets under the skin of this loving father who is unafraid to face the world naked and yet touchingly ready to grapple by the possibility that his arrogant, free spirit might actually do harm to his children.”

Helen O’Hara (Empire): “But all of it is anchored and, like the family itself, dominated by Mortensen’s Ben, who’s both the hero and the villain. Caring but dictatorial, idealistic but often blind, he’s a fascinating figure and, in bringing him to life, Mortensen gives his best performance yet.”

Zack Sharf (IndieWire): “Part ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ part ‘Swiss Family Robinson,’ this award-winning indie checks off the boxes while making every cliche feel excitingly new. Part of that is because of Viggo Mortensen, whose magical performance reminds you why he’s one of the best actors in the game. If only he’d take on more roles.”

Alonso Duralde (The Wrap): “The movie really belongs to Mortensen, who allows Ben to be exasperating, arrogant and impatient but also warm, loving and caring. He’s a tough but adoring father, a grieving widower and an angry defender of his wife’s final wishes, and Mortensen plays all these notes and more with subtlety and grace.”

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