Captain Fantastic Review

Posted: September 16, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

captain-fantasticWritten by Daniel Simpson

Even if I didn’t love him as an actor, I think I’d still really admire Viggo Mortensen. After years of bit parts, Mortensen got a major break playing Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s not hard to imagine Mortensen making a major star turn following the massive success and exposure after LOTR, but the man has walked a different path. He’s taken a lot of smaller, more challenging roles, including an awesome trio of films with the great David Cronenberg and a powerful turn in the underrated Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road. It’s rewarding to see him take on more unique roles, and it’s rewarding in Captain Fantastic too, even if the movie itself doesn’t work.

The film follows Ben (Mortensen), a father of six who has been raising his children in the wilderness. Ben teaches his children survival tactics while also teaching history, politics, philosophy, and art. The unit is shaken when their mother, who is in the hospital for bipolar disorder, commits suicide. Ben is barred from the funeral by his father-in-law (Frank Langella), who disapproves of Ben’s lifestyle. Initially, Ben accepts this, but his children convince him that the family deserve to be there and ensure their mother get the service she wanted. The group lets up the bus and sets off on a road trip which will introduce the kids to elements of the average American life while also testing the family’s strength and resolve.

Though the film takes the form of a road trip movie, the real focus of Captain Fantastic comes from exploring the main family and their strange style of living. This is also where the film’s biggest problems lie. Specifically, the kids all seem far too well-adjusted for a group of people who have been raised in the wilderness with little to no exposure to anyone outside the family. They certainly stand out when compared to the “average Americans” they meet in the film, but the basic personalities of the children are pretty much the standard types we usually see for child characters, just slightly more eccentric versions. I was also disappointed by the film’s lack of interest in exploring tough questions. In particular, I kept thinking about the teenage characters, and how typical sexual frustrations would no doubt be exasperated when the only people you are around are your family members. However very little attention is paid to this, apart from a brief moment and later scene involving the eldest son, which play more as awkward teen comedy than anything (albeit in a heightened fashion). I can’t help but compare this to Dogtooth, which also looks at a group of children isolated from the outside world but does a much better job exploring the psychological consequences of such isolation.

Of course, any serious or hard look at what the effects such an upbringing would have would clash with the film’s general endorsement of Ben, his world view, and (at least to some extent) his methods. All of Ben’s kids are highly intelligent, well-read, physically fit, hardworking, and can survive off the land. Comparatively, the normal people are most often depicted as being obese, dumb, impatient, dependent on technology, or/and intolerant. I’m not saying these people don’t exist, but for almost every character who isn’t a part of the family to be depicted in such a way is a simplistic cheat to make the main characters seem all the more right. For all my criticisms though, the film does eventually turn around and start to question the harm Ben is doing and the risks he is taking with his children. It’s a bit of a hypocritical reversal after the film has spent so much time triumphing the character, but it at least shows some acknowledgement of consequence. However this too is mostly undone by the ending, which teased a darker, more ambiguous ending before taking a more conventional and optimistic path. True, Ben does at least learn a lesson, but I still feel this overlooks the deeper effects these characters actions would have.

What’s frustrating is that in-spite of the flaws in the story the filmmaking on display is objectively pretty strong. Matt Ross shows promise as a director. He has a pretty good sense of visuals, makes good use of the woods he shoots in, and the editing has a good sense of energy too. Admittedly, Ross is guilty of leaning into the script’s (which he wrote) more simplistic aspects, but the technical elements are all handled pretty well. The acting is really good too. Viggo Mortensen delivers a reliably strong turn, immersing himself in the character and also delivering on the film’s more emotional moments. It’s one of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year thus far. The rest of the cast is good too. All the young actors who play Ben’s children come off very naturally and have a lot of screen presence. These elements make me want to like Captain Fantastic, but I think the story is fundamentally flawed in ways that I can’t overlook. The film largely ignores exploring the questions its premise raises with any depth or truth and instead opts for simplicity in ways which feel off-putting given the subject matter. There are brief glimmers in the third act that the film might eventually take advantage of its premise, and even some stirring moments, but this too is not really fulfilled. The things that work do work well enough and the film is certainly watchable from start to finish, but on the whole Captain Fantastic is something of a wasted opportunity.

C-

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