Cinema often takes a hard line on those who reject society for a simpler existence. Most often, they’re portrayed as weirdos, possibly murderers, who eke out a living deep in the woods surrounded by firearms, and probably inbreeding. Then there are the action heroes who retreat to a rustic cabin in search of peace, only to be called back for one last job. But it’s rare to see a film sympathetic to the sort of hippie idealist who tries to forge a new Eden, despite everything — and this thoughtful indie film examines how such a man might cope when his great project is threatened.
Viggo Mortensen, who seems only loosely tied to modern life at the best of times, plays the high-minded dreamer who takes his family into the woods and raises his kids in their own personal idyll. They hunt game, race up mountains for exercise and gather around the campfire to read each evening: George Eliot for the little ones, quantum physics for the teens. Their life looks dreamy, shot with sunbeams slanting through the trees of an apparently virgin forest. The children — led by George McKay as eldest son Bo — are strong, healthy and extraordinarily knowledgeable about all manner of esoteric subjects, but they have no real understanding of the outside world. While Ben inspires and drives his family, he is yet to realise that he is also limiting their experience.
When Ben takes his brood across country to their mother’s funeral, despite the warnings of his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella), who blames him for his daughter’s death, to stay away, it’s an eye-opening journey of discovery for the kids. For Ben, however, it’s a huge risk. He fears for the purity of mind he has sought to instil in them amid the world’s temptations, and for his own continued custody of them when Jack attacks their unconventional way of life.
It’s a fairly simple plot but Matt Ross’ debut film is so dense with metaphor that you can read it on any of a number of levels.
It’s a fairly simple plot but Matt Ross’ debut film is so dense with metaphor that you can read it on any of a number of levels. It’s an engaging road movie about an eccentric clan discovering the wider world, with some beautifully played fish-out-of-water commentary — not always at the expense of the mountain family. It’s also a sharp portrayal of modern life and its hypocrisies and limitations; the outsider perspective of these sheltered kids venturing down the mountain in contrast with their video-game obsessed cousins. There’s arguably a discussion of American values too, contrasting Ben’s frontier ideals with the consumerist gleam beyond his woods. And this is a thoughtful examination of the fragility of any idyll under pressure from the imperfect world outside.
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.