Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 2016. Electric City Entertainment, ShivHans Pictures. Screenplay by Matt Ross. Cinematography by Stephane Fontaine. Produced by Monica Levinson, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat. Music by Alex Somers. Production Design by Russell Barnes. Costume Design by Courtney Hoffman. Film Editing by Joseph Krings. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016.
Viggo Mortensen is raising his children in the wilderness and giving them the skills that are lost in the mainstream world: they can hunt their own dinner and till their own soil, they possess masterful self-defense skills and are educated in all manner of subjects, having devoured a vast number of books that they can not only recite but can interpret. The brood of six kids and their loving, uncompromising father decide to take a trip away from their hidden paradise when they learn that their mother has died after years of struggling with her mental health; the funeral is being taken care of by her parents who do not respect her desire for Buddhist cremation. The journey in their repurposed school bus will not only make the children feel like outsiders in a world that they have been kept hidden away from but will also make Mortensen face some harsh truths about the way he has lived his life for too long. Has he really given his kids an abundance of skills, or has he made them perfectly incapable of connecting with anyone around them despite their knowledge and said skills? Dark secrets about the past begin to surface and prove him to be well-intentioned but not necessarily perfect, that perhaps his wife’s agreement to this hippie-redux life was rebellion against her one-percenter father (played, far too predictably, by Frank Langella) and that Mortensen is afraid to face his own feelings of guilt about her illness. So with such sensitive nuance to both the good and the bad of the protagonist’s principled lifestyle, why does director Matt Ross go out of his way to bash the rest of American society as counterpoint to these unusual but not unsympathetic wild things? Obese bank customers, teenagers obsessed with their phones and rich people who live in giant, soulless mansions are not a preposterous summation of common American life, and the way Mortensen and Co. have learned to be self-sufficient really is impressive, but it’s possible that Ross isn’t confident about the family’s easy appeal and insults their surroundings to hedge his bets. Overall, it plays like a soft Running On Empty without nearly the same intense and interesting level of conflicts, but it has a solid performance from its leading man, who is really convincing as the man of the woods, and spends most of its time being wholeheartedly sincere.