‘Captain Fantastic’
Director:
Matt Ross
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The sorta-hero of “Captain Fantastic” is one of those characters that requires a chart with columns marked “pros” and “cons.” On the pro side, you can put that Ben, played by a dreamy-maned and grossly bearded Viggo Mortensen, goes well beyond mere filthy hippie. He’s raised his kids far, far from the things of man — in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, to be exact. His brood of six won’t have to suffer through the sausage factory of the American school system. They’ll grow up with a thirst for knowledge and difficult books. They’ll be able to survive in nature should society finally collapse, because they spent their lives sleeping in a yurt and scaling rocks and slaying deer for food.

OK, perhaps some of that doesn’t seem safe for children. Sure enough, the con category is full up, too. For Ben is also a reckless, dangerous, smug asshole. His kids, ranging from young and bright-eyed to a college-aged moody brooder (George MacKay), are routinely put in harm’s way. He’s as much of an autocrat as any despot he derides, bullying his spawn into obeying his every command even as he preaches the gospel of open minds. When they venture into the wilds of society, he brandishes his peen for the sole purpose of upbraiding passersby for being prurient sheeple.

RELATED: Interview: Viggo Mortensen talks "Captain Fantastic" and how acting keeps him youthful

This mixed bag of a protagonist is given what sounds like a wacky road trip plot. When we catch up with Ben and company, the matriarch, who suffered from depression, has taken her life. Ben is not welcome at her suburban funeral, as her wealthy father (Frank Langella at his most ghoulish) blames him for brainwashing his daughter. Ben piles the kids into their tour bus (named “Steve”!) anyway, intending to disrupt the stuffy proceedings and honor his late wife’s wish of being cremated, scolding the bereaved while dressed in a get-up that’s like “Sgt. Pepper” only louder.

This could go two ways: either extreme liberal views will be flattered or stern conservative ones reinforced. But writer-director (and sometime “Silicon Valley” actor) Matt Ross seeks a third way, all while ping-ponging between the two. Sometimes he goes a bit too far idolizing Ben’s little world, with dreamy shots of nature romping caked in Sigur Ros or at least Sigur Ros-knockoffs. But he’s always slipping in doubt, pointing out the many cracks in Ben’s logic and ethics. 

Mortensen is able to convey all Ben’s pros and cons (and more besides — we didn’t mention he swapped out Christmas for “Noam Chomsky Day”) without breaking a bead of sweat. He’s of a constitution that can be gentle and admirable then slip into sinister and hissable then back again, just by being there in front of a camera. This could have been a movie the usual people love and the usual people hate. Instead it asks everyone to look at everything that happens with great and exacting skepticism.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge