There’s a moment early on in “Captain Fantastic” where Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash, still reeling from the news of his wife’s suicide, addresses his children on the matter. “Last night mommy killed herself,” he says, “she finally did it.” The bluntness hits like a shock to the system.
It won’t be the last we encounter Ben’s child-rearing directness. Over the course of the film, he sticks firmly to his “no lying” mantra, going as far as to tell his young daughter about sexual intercourse after she asks. But that initial encounter is critical. As played by the extraordinary Mortensen, it’s a moment of deep tragedy. He gives the line a no-nonsense edge that proves euphemisms don’t run in this family, but his swelling eyes hint at how crippling that can be. It’s at this moment that “Captain Fantastic” asks its big question: How does a parent live with himself when the way he has raised his children begins to betray them all?
The answer to that question is charted by Mortensen over the rest of the film in a performance defined by affection and heartbreak. His work has landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, the second of his career, though he is hardly a frontrunner. By most accounts, the race has boiled down to “Manchester By the Sea” star Casey Affleck, winner of over 30 awards this season, and Denzel Washington, a last-minute threat for “Fences” who most recently won the SAG Award.
But Viggo doesn’t just deserve to be in the frontrunner conversation with them — he deserves to win. With Ben Cash, he finds a way to undercut our expectations of him as an actor, and he becomes more vulnerable on screen than we’ve ever seen him before.
The same can’t really be said for Affleck, whose role in “Manchester by the Sea” embodies his strengths as an actor. Affleck has long excelled at tapping into the emotional despondency of his characters. His withdrawn nature makes him a natural fit for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s material. His detachment is a peculiarity as the film begins, but it develops into an embodiment of inescapable grief when his tragic past comes to light. It’s an ideal pairing of character and performer that is heart-shattering. The same goes for Denzel Washington — who directs himself in “Fences” — as Troy Maxon, resulting in the fusion of a major American actor with a major August Wilson character. Both actors are tremendous, but they’re not exactly exploring new territory.
Mortensen, however, challenges our perception of him as an actor the more “Captain Fantastic” progresses. The story follows Ben and his children as they leave their isolated home in the Pacific Northwest and travel to New Mexico to attend the funeral. The more the family is put up against the real world, the more Ben is forced to reconcile with the way he decided to raise his kids. The Ben Cash we meet at the start of the picture — covered in dirt, knifing the heart out of a deer and feeding it to his son — may be jarringly left-of-center, but he’s so in line with the protective, masculine strength Mortensen has built a career out of that it makes it easy to see past, and even fall for, his extremeness.
As director Matt Ross told IndieWire last summer, “There’s something about Viggo — he’s a man’s man and believes intellectually the words coming out of his mouth.” We may identify celebrating “Noam Chomsky Day” or faking a heart attack to steal groceries from a supermarket as questionable parenting choices, but Mortensen makes it all charming.
But slowly Ben is pulled apart by the real world, and the power of the performance is how far Mortensen goes to make the character morally complex, to turn everything we’ve come to admire about him (his no-bullshit charm, for instance) into things we can’t quite trust anymore.
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The centerpiece of the movie finds Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella) threatneing to gain custody of his children, and it’s a brutal moment of truth. Mortensen turns Ben into a complicated, self-realized anti-hero. We find ourselves no longer able to fully sympathize with Ben, just as he realizes he can’t sympathize with his decisions, either. He has blindly led his children down a dangerous path he was too scared to acknowledge himself. The internal confusion Mortensen plays with here is undeniably effective. Is he guilty of child abuse? As Ben wrestles with that question, the question lingers to powerful effect.
No other actor in the Oscar race has an arc this tricky to maneuver, and Mortensen does it with such reserved emotion that you almost take it for granted. It’s not until Ben stops lying to himself that the full power of Mortensen’s work becomes impossible to ignore. “I’ll ruin your lives,” he says to his children about why they can’t keep living with him. The silent emotional turmoil that follows as Ben drives away might just be the most bare one minute of Mortensen’s career. He once again forces us to reconsider our sympathy for the character in a single glance. He manages to break down Ben to his essential core — a parent who loves his children and just wants to do right by them, no matter the cost — and gets the viewer aching for his redemption.
That moment is the last step in Ben’s transformation and represents how radically Mortensen has broken down a character that started so safely in his wheelhouse. Back when “Captain Fantastic” was playing Cannes, the actor openly admitted to taking on roles that were “off the beaten path,” and that’s certainly the wild man we first meet.
But the story forces Ben — and, by default, Viggo — to get on the damn path. The final image says it all (spoiler warning): Ben, having just packed school lunches, sits in peace as his kids do their homework while eating breakfast. It’s the kind of domestic bliss you’d rarely associate Viggo with. He’s no longer a “man’s man,” but a domestic man. The magic of his performance isn’t just how right he makes this endpoint feel for the character, but also how rewarding he makes the journey to it.
There’s a moment earlier in the film where Ben’s daughter analyzes Professor Humbert from “Lolita.” “I hate him and feel sorry for him at the same time,” she says. A variation of that sentiment could apply to Ben as well. We don’t necessarily hate him, but our loyalty to him and his loyalty to himself is constantly being challenged, and it’s in this moral grey area where Mortensen’s performance thrives. He takes the viewer on a shapeshifting emotional journey, forcing us to admire, distrust, and ultimately put our faith in Ben. What other Best Actor nominee can you say that about? Mortensen taps into a paternal humanity so real, so honest that it more than holds its own against both frontrunners.
Power to Viggo, stick it to the Oscars!