Viggio Mortsensen appeared on Bill Maher's show several months ago, pushing a provocative sounding movie called "Captain Fantastic."
The little noticed film, which I viewed on Comcast On Demand Monday night to escape the NFL game and bad political tidings, captured me from the start. Reminiscent of 1960s cult films like "King of Hearts" that illuminate essential themes with a quirky and deft touch, "Captain Fantastic" exceeded my expectations, an all too rare experience in these days of movies racing to the bottom.
Mortensen displays his signature emotional range in portraying Ben Cash, who exemplifies American myths of utopian communes, escaping to the frontier, inventing a new identity. He's the father of a Swiss Family Robinson brood of children, who receive rigorous training from their father in wilderness survival and physical endurance, along with a strong education in literature, politics, philosophy and music.
On one level, the children are healthier, better educated and happier than most American youngsters with their addition to junk food and video games. On another, the film sees them as victims of abuse. Their isolation from American society makes them unequipped to deal with the modern world.
The film slowly reveals that their absent mother has suffered a mental breakdown. In a stunning scene, Ben learns that she's committed suicide. His unflinchingly honest breaking of the news to the children, who range from near adulthood to about 6 years old, begins a powerful series of scenes that show the family's journey to cope with their mother's death.
Matt Ross wrote the script and directed the movie, another revelation. I was surprised to find that Ross is the actor who brilliantly portrays the outsized Internet entrepreneur Galvin Belson on HBO's "Silicon Valley." Ross shows a deep, loving understanding of American culture and values in his "Captain Fantastic" script and direction.
The movie's great cast features a masterful performance by Frank Langellla, an American treasure. The young actors playing the brave, resourceful childen are also wonderful.
The film revisits a number of literary and film motifs without appearing derivative. I thought of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," road movies, the hippie movement and other American utopian experiments, "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Deerslayer," Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Edward Abbey, Robin Hood, and so on. The film carries all of this without collapsing.
"Captain Fantastic" examines a range of the most serious issues of America, without growing ponderous. It's an ambitious, inventive movie, which in the end achieves a vision of a shared American community.