Viggo Mortensen has just come in under the radar. But that’s what he tends to do.
One of the biggest surprises in Tuesday’s Oscar-nomination rollout was a Best Actor nomination for the 57-year-old star of Captain Fantastic, an indie movie that, unlike the highly acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, has pretty much remained one since its release in July.
Mortensen is best known for his work as strapping, noble Aragorn in the colossal Lord of the Rings movies but, before and since, he has taken on roles in an unpredictable string of well-directed, carefully chosen movies (Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method), all of them many leagues away from the Shire and, for that matter, mainstream audiences.
The latest of these is Captain Fantastic.
In this tough-minded but also achingly sentimental movie, directed by Matt Ross, he plays Ben, a radically principled family man raising his wife and children way out in the forest: They live completely off the grid, fueling their mind with books (you know, those things printed on paper) and keeping themselves fit with outdoor exercises that look like kinder, more holistic rituals from The Lord of the Flies.
Then something goes very wrong — to spoil it would seem rather unfair considering this is a movie few people may be aware even existed — and the family must suddenly cope with something even worse than civilization.
Mortensen’s performance has edged out those of heavy hitters such as Tom Hanks this awards season. He was up for a Golden Globe and is among the nominees at the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards. And he is, in a word, fantastic.
Ben is something of a holy fool, a martinet, a cockeyed optimist and a brooding pessimist, a family man who doesn’t necessarily understand his children’s thoughts or feelings.
In other words, he’s a very human bundle of contradictions barely held together by Mortensen’s lean sinews and quiet intelligence. He could be a character out of Henrik Ibsen if Ibsen had been a showrunner on Survival.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Mortensen can triumph at the Oscars over Manchester’s Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck, whose performance is even more torturously knotted with conflict and contradiction.