Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is the domineering patriarch of his own isolated tribe – not that he would admit to being such. He and his six home-schooled kids enjoy an escapist, face-painted, deer-slaughtering ‘alternative lifestyle’ in the forested mountains of Colorado.
Tragedy strikes their cocooned idyll when the children’s mother, already hospitalised for psychiatric treatment, commits suicide, prompting a trip to the burbs of middle-America for them to attend her funeral. If you have been over-exposed to the double standards and piety of our region’s remnant and new-gen hippies, you might not easily take to heart Ben’s righteous crusade against contemporary society – as gifts, he gives the youngsters forged-steel hunting knives.
I found him as irritating as I did inspiring – certainly he is drawn with more sympathy by director Matt Ross than was Paul Theroux/Peter Weir’s unhinged Allie Fox in the much more nuanced and challenging The Mosquito Coast (1986). Ben’s family’s emergence into the evil empire, travelling in an antiquated Ken Kesey bus, is accompanied by a spine-tingling rendition of Scotland the Brave – which makes you think in hindsight that it’s always a shame when the highlight of a movie comes halfway through.
A lot of soft targets are hit in a diatribe aimed at an America that is ‘under-educated and over-medicated’, not that it is entirely lacking in self-awareness. Ben reminds the kids that ‘we don’t make fun of people’, to which the eldest daughter replies ‘except Christians’. It would be more palatable if each of Ben’s offspring weren’t such terribly attractive intellectual diamonds, able to recite the Bill of Rights at the age of eight, as opposed to the in-laws’ boys who are as thick as two planks.
There is a discomfiting preachiness in tone, but I appreciated Mortensen’s performance as a bloke whom I didn’t warm too – alpha males are generally a pain in the arse – and the summation of Nabokov’s Lolita by daughter Vespyr (Annalise Basso) is spot-on. All of the child actors are wonderful, but the ending is unsatisfying for its cuteness.