Captain Fantastic, 2016.
Directed by Matt Ross.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn.
In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent.
“Our names are unique, there’s only one of us in the world,” George McKay’s Bodevan Cash declares in Matt Ross’ sophomore feature Captain Fantastic, thus causing all alarms to blare. There’s a very fine line between quirky and kooky and in burying that line in mud, grime and spittle, Ross succeeds in finding an equilibrium, all be it one that often falters awkwardly. Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash and his ragged offspring; through their faux-philosophical existentialism, their ludicrous names and their garish pomposity, somehow end up resembling actual people.
For the last 15 years, the Cash clan have lived an idyllic, isolated life in the vast woodlands of New Mexico. Father Ben teaches quantum physics, the children read literary classics; in place of birthdays and Christmas they celebrate the birth of Noam Chomsky.
Upon news of the passing of their mother-an absent, all be it looming figure-the children demand to go to the funeral, thus triggering a road trip, giving way for alien encounters with vast supermarkets, banks and Coca Cola.
Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine shoots the woodland with an idealised, pastoral soft focus, their ruggedness ultimately drowned out by the grace of nature whilst civilisation-all monolithic grey buildings and garish lights-is shot as if life draining. The family, what was once bright and brazen begins to resemble something far more vulgar.
And it’s this vulgarity that lends a further layer to the affair. Ben’s father-in-law-played with grit and righteous anger by Frank Langella – sees his grandchildren’s upbringing as child abuse with Ben resembling something less a father, more a Manson-lite cult leader, and he has a fair point. Once out of the woods, their quirks seem more akin to examples of systematic abuse patterns and terrible parenting-a visit to Ben’s sister (an ever delightful Kathryn Hahn) reveals his need for constant superiority. That charm so evident in the woods is now entirely absent.
In Viggo Mortensen, whom one can easily imagine lives a life not dissimilar to Ben; you have a performance of immense vulnerability. At any moment he looks as if ready to break. He fears for the purity of his brood, which manifests as being almost selfish, an idea that spreads slowly through his children. Yet it’s on, George McKay-a revelation in everything he’s ever in-who acts as the moral compass of the piece. He has a wisdom far beyond his years that whimpers with a frailty complexity.
There’s a smart manifestation of villainy in Ben, a man with whom personal ideals dominate. Where early on all signposts lead to Langella and modernism as the arch villains, director Ross finds morsels of complications in Ben. He’s never shown as a quiet sociopath, nor as simply a loving father, he’s a creature scarred by loss.
Only as the film comes to an end does the film wobble into the more vexing areas of quirk as the family sing a folk cover of “Sweet Child ‘o Mine,” but this is not a dampener. In Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross has weaved a delicate yarn of layers of dirtied, muddied poignancy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★