Director: Matt Ross
Writer: Matt Ross
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
Matt Ross has created something quite special in what is just his fourth film in the directors chair. The film follows the eccentric Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his young children as they live their uniquely regimented, back to basics, life of solitude in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Ben is soon forced to re-enter the wider world with his group of ragtag, commando rug-rats when a personal tragedy befalls them.
The film opens to the idyllic, beautiful, lush environments of the aforementioned wooded region and focuses in on a deer being closely tracked by the Cash clan. The animal is soon taken down in brutally impressive fashion by Bodevan ‘Bo’ Cash (George McKay); the oldest son of six children. A proud Ben makes his way across the stream to his son, declaring that “today the boy is dead, and in his place is a man”. This early scene and also the accompanying little, quick fire, montage showing the children doing their chores, some of which includes; deboning the deer carcass, fetching water and lighting a fire in the more traditional manner, perfectly illustrates the array of survivalist skills that’s been drummed into them and the off the grid, Lord of the Flies style existence they live.
Ben and his wife Leslie had decided to remove themselves and their growing young family from the increasingly chaotic, capitalist obsessed modern society, spurning the conventional education system for a home schooled program and passing on their strong humanitarian centred and socialist beliefs. They even celebrate everybody’s favourite humanitarian Noam Chomsky (I hadn’t heard of him before this if I’m honest) instead of Christmas. Despite some his parental faults of which there is more than a few, you certainly can’t argue with Ben’s teaching skills or the education his children have. He’s clearly a well educated man and even his youngest kids are able to eloquently discuss politics, which at times includes the intricacies of Fascism and Marxism, the human anatomy and various languages. Their fitness too is incredible, as the early part of the film goes out its way to highlight, with the family going for long runs, crazy burpee heavy, calisthenic exercises and a rock climbing session, the day after the kids learn their mother has died, up a sheer cliff face which nearly ends in disaster for Rellian.
Whilst Ben is clearly at home in this lifestyle, it’s pretty clear that some of his kids yearn for the outside world, particularly Bo and Rellian. This small chink of discontent is further exacerbated when Ben receives some heartbreaking news about Leslie, whilst in the middle of a trip into town. Having been away from her family for a number of months, battling bi-polar depression, she takes her own life in somewhat brutal circumstances, slitting her wrists. This moment provides the catalyst for the films story and after some dithering following a cold and threatening call with Jack, his father-in-law, both he and the children decide to go on a road trip come ‘mission’ down to New Mexico to attend their mothers funeral and also attempt to put the breaks on her burial. Leslie, you see, had left a will stating that as a believer in the Buddhist philosophy, she wanted to be cremated and that her ashes be flushed down a toilet.
The road trip portion of this film is perhaps my favourite part. There’s just so many genuinely funny, quotable moments and a fair share of poignant, emotional ones flung in for good measure. Matt Ross’ rather unsubtle attempts at social commentary, particularly prevalent at the beginning of the trip, when the kids who’re not used to the outside world, find themselves questioning the strange, new sights around them was pretty well implemented. It also provided much some decent laughs as the dumbfounded children asked their father if everyone was ill and why they were so “fat like hippos”. There was also a truly hilarious moment where Ben, always open, honest and forthright with his children, explained the meaning of rape, sexual intercourse and why a man would put his penis into a vagina to his 7 year old son after a series of quick-fire questions from the ever inquisitive young chap. But my personal favourites for sheer awkwardness and humour were Bo’s interaction with the young woman at the trailer park and Ben’s highly contrasting parenting style with his sister-in-law causing an argument over dinner.
I now understand why Viggo Mortensen got his Oscar nomination for best leading actor. He is phenomenally good in this film. He perfectly encapsulates all the little eccentric, oddities of Ben Cash’s personality, adds healthy dashes of sarcasm and humour to the character and puts in a fabulous performance. I think I could fill a review with his lines in this alone. “It’s just a penis, every man has one” is in the top three though. George McKay is a close second as the socially awkward, but academically gifted, Bodevan. There’s some fantastic moments with his character as he torments himself with the desire to leave and the plethora of acceptance letters to most of the US top colleges. He too has a standout line, where he passionately berates his dads parenting style. The rest of the actors and actresses that portrayed the children were all fantastic too. Their relationships and interactions were extremely well written and felt genuine. If I was to pick the best of the rest then I’d have to go with a two way tie between Samantha Isler and Nicholas Hamilton as Kielyr and Rellian respectively.
The funeral doesn’t go quite to plan when Ben who’s wearing his old, painfully dated, red wedding suit, gatecrashes what is in his mind a ‘farce’, reading out Leslie’s will with an air of nonchalance and offending his father-in-law to the extent that he is removed. Ben then goes through an emotional rollercoaster almost losing his daughter, Vespyr after she falls from her grandparents roof in a reckless attempt, instigated by him, to ‘rescue’ Rellian. This causes him to have something of an epiphany, leading with him deciding to leave the children with their grandparents after earlier being threatened with losing custody and child abuse charges by Jack. He soon departs on his own after an emotional farewell, before shaving, sitting at a campfire alone, and then in a mini twist, discovering the children have snuck on board and decided to stick by him. They all decide to fulfill their mothers dying wishes and so they dig up her newly filled grave, take her away and finally lay her to rest in a traditional pyre. These final moments are particularly poignant as the children who’d been used a pawns up until that point are finally reunited with their mother.
This is honestly one of the better films I’ve seen in the last year and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it. The story is simplistic at heart, it’s essentially a fattened up road trip film, but Matt Ross ekes out some brilliant acting performances from a majority young cast, allied with great writing and dialogue, all of which is framed with some lovely visuals and a soaring, at times emotionally on point score. The cool little song sessions the family sparked into on two occasions and the way it blended into the score was quite neatly done too. It’s also has some great social commentary on the ills of today’s consumerist obsessed society and even now I’m not truly sure whether Ben Cash is the best parent in the world or committing borderline child abuse. Overall though, just a damn good film.