Every now and then, a movie comes along that plays out almost entirely on a gifted actor’s face; you feel as if you could watch the whole thing in quiet close-up, and catch every nuance of the story. I think of Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” Brie Larson in “Room,” Denzel Washington in “Flight,” to name just a few — and now, Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.”
In Matt Ross’ soulful family drama (I call it that, though it’s often quite funny), Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six. Early on, watch that handsomely etched face; on it, flickering, is Ben’s fierce love for his children, his stubbornness, his patience, his self-righteousness that’s tempered – just a bit – by affection. And, later, see how it falls, like a seemingly immovable rock suddenly tumbling down a mountainside, when he realizes something rare for him: He has, perhaps, been wrong.
Ben, whose wife dies in the early moments of the film, is raising his children as a sort of wilderness Von Trapp family: They live in a rural compound, and Ben puts the kids through a regimen of grueling physical workouts, home schooling and training in how to think for themselves — within Ben’s own far-left worldview. It’s a harsh but loving environment. Ben meticulously listens to his children, answering their questions and encouraging them. But when they leave the compound and reunite with other family members, questions are raised: The kids, though smart and strong, are misfits, not knowing how to cope with the world as it actually exists. They aren’t superheroes, it turns out, but children.
Ross lets the story take its time, but “Captain Fantastic” never feels slow. This family, right down to the smallest child, are detailed and interesting, with individually crafted personalities. (One misstep: Ross overplays his hand a bit in Ben’s real-world young nephews, who come off as idiotic brats.) Ultimately, the film is a compelling and original take on the well-worn territory of family ties, and Mortensen’s tough yet vulnerable performance, as Ben comes to realize that he may have made “a beautiful mistake,” is among his career best.
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Rated: R for language and brief graphic nudity. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay. Director: Matt Ross. Running time: 118 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21, Flicks.