Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George McKay, Samantha Isler and Frank Langella
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: September 9th
Captain Fantastic opens on shots of the woods. The first few sights we see are of American forestry and the fauna therein, and slowly, having been presented with all this beauty, we start to notice mud-covered kids hiding in plain sight. They are children with made-up names, stalking their prey through the woods, in the midst of a hunting ritual that will see the eldest of their number raised to manhood. We soon learn that this is just one of the regular rituals undertaken by this particular brood, who turn out to be a family who make a habit of doing rigorous daily exercises, discussing high literature and philosophy and seem quite happy in their unique domesticity.
This existence is helmed by their father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a brutally honest figure who has made the decision to shun society and all its greed and corruption, in favour of a more open-minded existence. They celebrate Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas. They love knives and bows and arrows. They emphasise the distinction between Trotskyites and Trotskyists. Odd, and not without conflict, but basically healthy and okay, the family are dragged from their days of rock climbing and training when their mother, who has suffered with mental health difficulties, passes away, and the family embark into the civilisation they have eschewed in order to attend her funeral.
It’s fitting that the argument Captain Fantastic claims to intend is mentioned as they cross this particular threshold. As they move into the world of Coca-Cola and billboards, they discuss the topic of Lolita, and of men whose opinions and tendencies might disgust us, but with whom we sympathise. We get a knowing look from Ben at the wheel, and we’re on the right track. Or so it would have us believe, but it turns out that that is not really what happens at all, because Captain Fantastic has a clear favourite when it comes to its own topic and it is the ‘living in the woods’ side.
Mortensen’s Ben is an extreme figure, and is presented as such, and as the world around responds negatively to his views, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that a middle ground could easily be suggested, but never is. There seems to be a range from those who are dumbfounded by what is pretty clearly explained about their lifestyle early on, to the more central conflict of family members who wish to question their father, who preaches freedom, but who has a hard time leaving anyone else to their own belief. Some of the film’s best moments are when Ben’s beliefs are questioned, while reminding us he has a point on many things. Mortensen is excellent as a man who believes what he believes so strongly, and who loves who he loves so much, and whose heart is breaking because of it.
Its weaker moments are quite weak though, and they roll around just about any time oblivious caricatures snicker at the funny outsider only to be quickly proved wrong. On the other side of this however, the lovable family being fish-out-of-watered is repeatedly entertaining, and leads to a lot of really heartwarming moments, and, without spoiling anything, one of the cringiest cinematic moments of the year outside of David Brent: Life on the Road.
Ben is not Nabokov’s controversial protagonist, but he’s not Eat Pray Love Lady either (or he is, I haven’t seen it) and some might argue that modern society is too easy a target for this sort of film, but it’s fitting that it opens on those shots of the woods with the people in it, because at its heart Captain Fantastic is about beauty and love and freedom, and that is something that never wavers throughout. As heartwarming and consistently amusing as comedy-drama’s get, and the wonderful cast and direction help too.