The sense of wondrous adventure is the tone set by Captain Fantastic. It is the story of Ben, Viggo Mortensen, choosing to raise his children away from society to teach them how to live without materialist needs or engaging with the grimy world of America’s crony capitalism. The film opens with his eldest Bodevan, George MacKay, killing an animal for the first time, to represent his transition into Manhood. As the film progresses, we are shown many instances such as these where Ben is training them vigorously, both mentally and physically so that they can complete their ‘missions’. We are soon introduced to their biggest test yet when their mother passes away. Ben, because of the way he’s raised his family, is told by his father in law, Frank Langella, he can’t attend the funeral. The point of focus is how Ben and his children, desperate to see their mother, can go without breaking apart their family unit.
It was difficult to detach myself from viewing the film through my own reality and accept Ben’s methods. Whilst the children are incredibly well read and physically healthy, they are without any interaction with other members of society. Ben is also a complete authoritarian and whilst he encourages his children to engage in discourse about any dissatisfaction, it is clear he will always get his way. This is coupled with a number of moments that create an underlying sense of unease. One such moment is when Ben has the children sitting around a campfire, reading assigned books. He asks each their progress and reminds each of them about a test that they will take on their understanding of the book. This on the surface seems normal as it is a home education, but when some of the materials are Marx and Chomsky there’s evidently an ideology being indoctrinated on his children.
The crux is that Matt Ross, as the writer and director, does not give clarity to what he wishes us to take from his film. The film deals with many of the emotional scenes with great humour and a suggestion to not take it too seriously. Yet there is a clear, overarching criticism of modern society for which Ben and his children have a stock of aphorisms and platitudes. These, however, are facile at best and dangerously ignorant at worst. The film is somewhat saved by the fact that there is a strong ensemble cast, especially the performance of Samantha Isler as Kieylr, and there is a naturalism to the children’s performances which help the belief they’ve only known life with Ben in the forest. Ben attempts to teach his children how best to prepare for life, but through the means of making everything a game. You can lose a game with little consequence, but life is far tougher and if you lose enough, you can’t play again.
Dir: Matt Ross
Scr: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler
Prd: Declan Baldwin, Samantha Housman, Monica Levinson, Nimitt Mankad, Jamie Patricof, Crystal Powell, Shivani Rawat. Louise Runge, Lynette Howell Taylor
DOP: Stéphane Fontaine
Music: Alex Somers
Run Time: 118 mins
Captain Fantastic is out now on limited release at most major UK Cinemas