Interwoven with the complex anti-heroes Viggo Mortensen has portrayed in genre pieces such as Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993), A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998), Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007), and The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, 2014), this year’s Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016) is emblematic of another thread that runs throughout his work. Since his first leading role in The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, 1991), Mortensen has been drawn to scripts that explore family and fatherhood. Many of the characters he has portrayed struggle with how best to express paternal love, to perform the role of ‘father’, and he has frequently placed himself within narratives that allow him to enact aspects of the father-son relationship. What it means to be both a father and a son – in existential terms – appears to preoccupy the actor.

The emphasis on the paternal has been most explicit in films such as The Indian Runner, History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005), The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009), and Captain Fantastic, and are also clearly present in such diverse performances as Mortensen’s roles in The Prophecy (Gregory Widen, 1995), The Reflecting Skin (Philip Ridley, 1990), The Passion of Darkly Noon (Philip Ridley, 1995), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001- 2003), and Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014).

The Shadow of Impending Fatherhood: The Indian Runner

Mortensens’ role in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner saw him exploring the darker emotional responses to impending fatherhood. If, as film writer Bill Craske suggests, The Indian Runner is a blues ballad of a film, oscillating between uplifting humour and melancholic despair,1 then the theme of fatherhood runs beneath the melody like the hiss and crackle of an old record. The story centres on the relationship between war veteran Frank (Mortensen) and his brother Joe, a police officer, played by David Morse. Joe is the yin to Frank’s yang: moral, loving, responsible. When a drunken Frank tells his brother there are only two kinds of men – “heroes and outlaws” – we are in no doubt as to which brother is which.

Viggo Mortensen

The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, 1991)

With echoes of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West, the brothers are defined not only in relation to one another, but to their father (played by Charles Bronson in a beautifully understated performance). The underlying concern of the film is the impact of this paternal relationship on their own respective roles as fathers. After the death of their mother, Mr Roberts calls Joe in the middle of the night, unable to articulate his loneliness after having lost his wife, trying to hide his pain by telling Joe of some trivial domestic task he thinks his son should do. This masculine inability to expose and express vulnerability has marked both his sons. Initially Frank appears devoid of respect or affection for either parent, while Joe – himself a new dad – struggles more with his relationship to their father. In their gentle but often emotionally awkward scenes together Penn places the father and son far apart, even as Morse’s sorrowful, sloping eyes tell of the wish for a closer connection.

Penn makes Joe’s struggles with performing authentically as a father explicit. Partway through the film he lingers on the shot of a pensive Joe sitting under a tree in his garden, his baby playing on the grass beside him. There is something profoundly beautiful about the image, something primal- Morse’s bulk dominating the frame, the tiny infant child crawling around under his worried, watchful eye.

For the duration of the film Frank is not yet himself a dad, but the entire arc of his character takes place in the shadow of impending fatherhood. On learning that his girlfriend Dorothy (Patricia Arquette) is with child he sets up home with her and takes a regular job. But the daily grind – “I’m fixing a bridge for fat retired men and their fat wives and fat fucking little kids to drive over… I’m making an impact. That’s what I’m doing” – proves too much for Frank. Like Ben Cash in Captain Fantastic, the rigidity of his identification with the role of “outlaw” becomes self-destructive. The Sisyphean pointlessness of his conventional life, that Joe insists he can transcend via devotion to family, overwhelms him. He is soon boozing every night and picking fights in bars, unwilling to adopt his brother’s values and unable to manifest a sense of existential purpose within himself.

Mortensen delineates Frank’s ambivalence towards his imminent fatherhood with powerful authenticity. His spiritual collapse is compounded by his conflicted relationship with his father. Initially he seems to have severed any emotional bond with both parents- his reaction to the news of his mother’s death is an ironic “Bye, mommy…”. But a kind of buried respect and love for their father surfaces when he and Joe get drunk after their father’s suicide. Reminiscing about their childhood on the farm, Frank recites their father’s words exactly:

FRANK: Old ground. Dad said.

JOE: Said what? What did Dad say?

FRANK: He said, when this was all woods, you had Indian runners traveling messages right through here… “Independent of time and space, the Indian runner becomes the message!”

Ultimately however, Frank is unable to reconcile himself to fatherhood. While Dorothy gives birth, he is drinking in the bar. Here he finally gives full vent to his violent impulse, taking himself out of the equation of family by committing murder. Penn’s epigram, taken from Tagore, echoes the redemptive sentiment of I Shall Be Released: “Every new child born brings the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.”

Struggling Sons: The Reflecting Skin and The Prophecy

Mortensen further explores the place of the son within the family unit in The Reflecting Skin and The Prophecy. Family is central to the work of playwright, author, and filmmaker Philip Ridley. Mortensen appears in both of his ‘American Dreams’- The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), taking up a supporting role in each of Ridley’s characteristically eccentric family groups. Ridley’s sympathies lie with the disenfranchised, his protagonists often innocents, filtering the world around them through their vivid imaginations. Recalling the words of Andrea Dworkin, the filmmaker has “…no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out.” 2

The Reflecting Skin is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Seth Dove, the immersive point-of-view giving Ridley’s fantastical, painterly vision free rein. Seth’s family is on the brink of collapse, his mother slipping into religious insanity, his father deeply depressed by some dark secret. His elder brother Cameron (Mortensen) has returned from military service traumatised and suffering from a mysterious physical affliction. Cameron becomes romantically involved with Dolphin Blue, a local widow whom Seth is convinced is a vampire, intent on sucking the lifeblood from his brother. “The nightmare of childhood,” as Dolphin remarks to Seth. “Innocence can be Hell”. Beneath all this gothic texturing, this terrible beauty, what gives the film its power is its emotional truthfulness. In all families, to a greater or lesser degree, there sleeps some repressed secret, and by the end of the film Seth has become aware of the truth about his own. His brother is suffering radiation sickness; Dolphin is just a lonely widow, heartbroken and obsessed with the memory of her husband; and the burden borne by his suicidal father is repressed homosexuality.

Viggo Mortensen

The Reflecting Skin (Philip Ridley, 1990)

Viggo Mortensen

The Prophecy (Gregory Widen, 1995)

In The Prophecy Mortensen brings an emotional realism to an archetypal character. His portrayal of Lucifer appears based more on the familial circumstances that inform the character, rather than any attempt to embody ‘pure evil’, a la Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987). “I was the first angel” Mortensen’s character laments, “loved once above all others… but like all true love, one day it withered on the vine.” Tellingly, in an interview Mortensen foregrounded the father-son relationship when questioned about his approach to the role: “I see him as the prodigal son, very gifted but such a rebel that his father throws him out of paradise. I asked myself how he would have reacted. He certainly would have felt misunderstood, because he was the most intelligent and brightest of all the angels. Inevitably he would ask himself, ‘Why has he rejected me?’ So he would have had ego problems. Ultimately he’s very human…”. 3

Surrogate Fathers: The Passion of Darkly Noon and The Lord of the Rings trilogy

The makeshift family unit of Ridleys’ The Passion of Darkly Noon has Mortensen – as mute coffin-maker Clay – assuming the role of surrogate father to Brendan Fraser’s orphaned Darkly Noon. In an ironic twist on the cliché of the taciturn, ‘man of few words’ father character, Mortensen communicates, gruffly but clearly, through an array of gestures and grunts. Raised in a puritan religious cult, Darkly cannot make sense of the sensual, loving relationship between Clay and his lover Callie (Ashley Judd). If The Reflecting Skin captures “the nightmare of childhood”, Darkly Noon describes the agonies of adolescence and sexual awakening. Once Darkly is taken in by Callie, Clay attempts to connect with him, encouraging Darkly to get involved in his carpentry just as a father might take pleasure in his son learning his trade. Darkly’s confusion and neurosis prove insurmountable however, and an Oedipal scenario plays out with Darkly’s jealousy driving him to madness.

Viggo Mortensen

The Passion of Darkly Noon (Philip Ridley, 1995)

Viggo Mortenson

Viggo Mortenson in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001- 2003)

Mortensen takes another paternal role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, bringing a psychological depth absent from the prototypical ‘hero’ found in Tolkien’s books. Without damaging the mythology of the story, the self-doubt and existential struggle that Mortensen brings to his portrayal allows the character to embody both the orc-decapitating ‘hero’, and the gentler, nurturing ‘father’ archetype, thus providing the story’s protagonist Frodo with both bodily protection and spiritual counsel, and the example of both physical and moral strength. The fellowship, and the acceptance of his paternal role in it, aids Aragon in his gradual transformation from the self-exiled Strider into the King.

Fathers in Crisis: A History of Violence, The Road and Jauja

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road represent the most direct examples of Mortensens’ preoccupation with the paternal role. Contrasting starkly with Jauja‘s mystical meandering, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is shot in almost hyperreal detail. The violent scenes in particular – while existing within a generic narrative- are profoundly shocking in their realism. After dispatching a pair of smalltime crooks with stunning facility when they attempt to rob his small town store, Mortensen’s seemingly mild-mannered family man Tom Stall is revealed to have once been a violent gangster named Joey Cusack. The narrative follows both Tom/Joey and his son, as the bullied schoolboy attempts to process his father’s newly discovered capacity for violence. In a similar way to Paul Schrader’s study of male violence Affliction (1997), Cronenberg suggests that the propensity for violence is “borne in the blood… and passed on from father to son”.4 The film also raises questions about the existential authenticity of familial roles. As in the final scene of Captain Fantastic, History of Violence ends with the family around the dinner table, sitting together in silence. The viewer is left to decide for themselves whether Tom/Joey’s role as a father is now less authentic, or, having gone into the desert as Joey and consciously “murdered” his old self, is his choice to become ‘Tom Stall’ in fact existentially more authentic?

Viggo Mortensen

History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Viggo Mortensen

The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Of all Mortensen’s ‘fatherhood films’, The Road is both the bleakest and the most hopeful.   Here the generic post-apocalyptic trappings are used to bring primal parental instincts into sharp relief.   The film shows paternal love distilled to its purest expression- simply, that the child might continue to live and be safe after we have gone. Again, Mortensen brings a psychological realism to McCarthy’s father archetype. The character has an almost religious obsession with “carrying the fire”:

MAN: You have to carry the fire

BOY: I don’t know how to

MAN: Yes, you do

BOY: Is the fire real? The fire?

MAN: Yes it is.

BOY: Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

MAN: Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

In his hands, this becomes a deeply moving attempt to instill hope and resolve into a scared child, showing us how we create myths for ourselves in desperate times, and how our belief in them can become a source of profound spiritual strength. The myth, and more importantly the hope it engenders, becomes the father’s legacy to his son.

By the end of the film, when The Man dies and The Boy is taken into the care of another father, the child has, as Lydia Cooper writes, “become the object that brings the essence of divinity back to a corrupted world”. 5

Viggo Mortensen

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

Jauja has a similar mythic quality, but it’s symbolism and plot remain defiantly elusive. Indeed, the narrative may only be ‘understood’ by abandoning any rational, conscious reading and accepting the slowly unfolding story as a parental anxiety dream. Mortensen plays a Danish army captain traveling, with his daughter (Viilbjork Malling Agger), across the Patagonian tundra. Somewhat ridiculously duty-obsessed and determined to keep up appearances despite their desolate, utterly uncivilised situation, the Captain is troubled by his daughter’s effect on the soldiers in the camp. When the girl runs off with one of them, he pursues them through the lunar-esque, increasingly hallucinatory landscape, until finally, alone under a star-filled sky, he appears to reach a quiet, surreal transcendence.

Making a Safe Place of One’s Heart: Captain Fantastic

We have seen how Mortensen has worked through various aspects of father-son relationships throughout his acting career. He has chosen roles that required him to embody the existential pressure of impending fatherhood, the struggles of the son within the family, and scenarios of extreme parental crisis and anxiety. In many ways Captain Fantastic represents the culmination of the actors exploration into fatherhood. The film is ‘realist’, without a generic framework or the attendant metaphorical distance, and Mortensen’s character deals directly with the complexities of the question of how best to raise ones’ children. All the self-doubt, fear, and existential ‘bad faith’ of his previous roles is present here, and indeed may be more powerful and authentic for existing within a gentler, more realistically complex narrative.

Captain Fantastic concerns a family living ‘off grid’ in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA. Free-thinking parents Ben and Leslie Cash (Trin Miller) have raised their six children in isolation, but- far from indulging in a laid back ‘hippy’ lifestyle- have trained their off-spring in survival skills to a professional athlete’s level of physical fitness, and educated them from a library of deeply intellectual tomes. No Christmases for the Cash kids, gifts (such as frighteningly dangerous looking hunting knives) are instead exchanged on ‘Noam Chomsky Day’.

Curiously, both Captain Fantastic and The Indian Runner begin with scenes of the ritualised killing of a deer, as if a visual rite of passage is necessary before entering the narrative. In Captain Fantastic, the eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes a bloody bite out of the animal’s heart, while Penn’s Indian runner kneels respectfully over his kill and inhales the animals dying breath. The opening scenes of family life show the daily intellectual and physical training regime that Ben has constructed for his children. Here, he is in complete control, guiding and encouraging each child according to their individual personalities. Within the world he has created, Ben is able to spontaneously react to his children’s needs. The evening music session during which the family all play various instruments together provides a lovely example- Ben initiates things with a gentle strumming on his guitar, creating a peaceful, folky ambience that one by one the children add to, until teenager Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) abruptly shatters the vibe with his angry, tribal thumping on a hand-drum. Initially taken aback, Ben nevertheless follows his son’s lead and soon the whole family are rocking out.

Viggo Mortensen

Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)

The narrative follows the fortunes of the family when, after the suicide of the mentally unstable Leslie, Ben and his brood are forced to up stakes and return to ‘civilized’ society. Ben and Leslie have instilled in their children intellectual and spiritual values worthy of “philosopher kings”, as she refers to their brood in a letter read late in the film. Ben has improvised a creative response both to capitalist society and by extension to the conventional role of the ‘father’. When Leslie’s death necessitates a return to society, however, it becomes clear that Ben’s self-invention is in fact as inflexible and rigid as the structures he is attempting to live beyond. Mortensen takes us through Ben’s gradual realisation that the freedom he has worked so hard to achieve has become, for his children, a prison. He must stop defining himself solely in opposition to capitalist society, stop acting according to his preconceived ideals. In existential terms, he has found himself living in “bad faith”- that is, living according to a fixed and thus inauthentic self-image. He must reinvent himself, and creatively negotiate whatever society- as embodied here by Leslie’s parents- throws at him. To be a truly strong and loving father he must, like Lao Tzu’s supple reed, yield to the wind of change.

The poet Li-Young Lee writes that “each must make a safe place of his heart, / before so strange and wild a guest / as God approaches”.6 In Captain Fantastic we witness a father becoming aware of the damage his love is doing to his children, and learning to temper his ego-driven idealism and transcend his ‘bad faith’ for their sake, to make his love a safe place for them. Another mirroring between Captain Fantastic and The Indian Runner is the presence of The Band’s I Shall be Released playing over the end credits. The yearning for freedom in the song allows us the slim hope of spiritual redemption for Frank. Ben Cash however is much closer to that state of grace, and in Captain Fantastic the song takes on a more celebratory feel.

We know from interviews that part of Mortensens’ preparation for each role involves imagining a life history for his character, from birth to the point at which the story starts, and we can assume from his comments on The Prophecy that familial relationships form a large part in those invented biographies. Also a poet and a visual artist, should the actor come to write and direct his own feature, it will be fascinating to see how the father-son theme manifests.



  1. Bill Craske, “The Indian Runner”, Senses of Cinema Issue 14 (June 2001) sensesofcinema.com/2001/cteq/indian_runner/
  2. Andrea Dworkin, The New Woman’s Broken Heart: Short Stories (East Palo Alto, California: Frog in the Well, 1980).
  3. Marc Toullec, “The King Is Mortensen, Long Live the King!” Cine Live Issue 71 (September 2003). Republished at Viggo-Works.com www.viggo-works.com/?page=367
  4. Schraeder quote taken from the following interview: Marjorie Baumgarten, “Bad to the Bone”, The Austin Chronicle 19 February 1999 www.austinchronicle.com/screens/1999-02-19/521216/
  5. Lydia Cooper, “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative”, Studies in the Novel, 43.2 (Summer 2011): pp.218-236.
  6. Li-Young Lee, “Nativity”, in Book of My Nights (Rochester: BOA Editions, Ltd. 2001).