Captain Fantastic

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Matt Ross

Starring

George MacKay Samantha Isler Viggo Mortensen

Anticipation.

If Viggo gave it the seal of approval, that’s good enough for us.

Enjoyment.

He’s better than the film he’s starring in.

In Retrospect.

Lots of mixed messages, little in the way of excitement.

Viggo Mortensen goes off-piste with mixed results in this homely family drama.

This mildly eccentric cross-country caper is complicated by its attempts say something profound about life. Writer/director Matt Ross wants to show that the battle for moral superiority can only be won if everyone is open to deep and detailed criticism. We are all tainted and no one is perfect, particularly those who believe they are. Viggo Mortensen plays log cabin liberal, Ben, a bearded Haight-Ahsbury throwback with an impressive wardrobe of vintage Democrat Party campaign tees who is out to prove that existence outside of the commercialised mainstream is not only possible but preferable.

He imposes staunch ideals onto his six bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids, forcing a bowie knife in to one hand, and a textbook on political science in to the other. Captain Fantastic offers a cool critique of the nurturing process, presenting the pros and cons of raising little ones in our image. It asks whether children should exist as footsoldiers who must abide by parental order. And if so, what if this cultural force-feeding is actually teaching them about freedom of expression and the joys of independence?

The family’s woodland idyll is ruptured when matriarch Leslie is pronounced dead, and Ben must usher his brood into a tattered, modified school bus so they can hit the road and prevent her ageing conservative parents from giving her the Christian burial she never wanted. Mortensen’s Ben is like a Manson Family acolyte, one part peace-loving beatnik, another part deranged psychopath. He’s not murderous or anything like that, but he’s so self-engaged and ingrained in his opinions that it’s his way or the highway. It’s almost as if he’s fighting a one-man war with the non-believers who represent the evils of capitalism, religion and intellectual ignorance.

Yet the film itself is far less impressive than its conflicted central character, as in order to make sure that Ben can retain a measure of empathy, Ross uses the people he meets along the road as single-note figures of fun. A stop-over with his sister-in-law (Kathryn Hahn) allows him to display his children’s emotional maturity. Her sons are slack-jawed, computer game-loving dolts, whereas his preteen daughter is able to wax analytical about the American Bill of Rights. It’s hard to disagree with the idea that book smarts have their value, it’s just a shame it’s presented in such an obvious and contrived manner.

Elsewhere, an after-dark sortie involves one daughter employing her hunting prowess to clamber up onto the roof of grandpa’s mini mansion to rescue Ben’s briefly estranged son. We learn that skills perfected in the forest don’t necessarily translate to the flat-pack suburbs, duh. Yet at this point Ross nudges Ben’s egotism over the edge, inferring that he’s so intent on preserving his ideals that he’s willing to place the lives of his children in mortal peril. A sucky subplot also suggests that we can’t learn about real human interactions through books. It’s a film which tries to say something interesting, but spends too much time squirming, flip-flopping and working out how it can pass comment without causing too much offence.

Published 9 Sep 2016

Tags: Viggo Mortensen

Anticipation.

If Viggo gave it the seal of approval, that’s good enough for us.

Enjoyment.

He’s better than the film he’s starring in.

In Retrospect.

Lots of mixed messages, little in the way of excitement.

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