Captain Fantastic is a movie that I could debate about for hours on end. Not because the plot is ambiguous or the film lacks finality, but because I really do feel like it brings up a lot of important, fascinating talking points that could provoke wildly different emotions in a variety of audience members. In Matt Ross' portrait of a family living in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, the filmmaker gives us a look at a group of people with radically different values. They're led by a father, who, depending on your interpretation, is either a cruel and slightly insane abuser, or a "fantastic" messiah instilling the right values in his children. In the wild, they train to keep their bodies in peak physical shape. The kids read an endless amount of books, armed with an arsenal of knowledge about anything from history to biochemistry. They don't celebrate Christmas, Easter, or any formal holiday. Instead, their dad gives them knives for Noam Chomsky day. In pretty much every way, this family is different.
All of this presents an uphill battle for Ross to climb. It's hard to relate to a group of kids that feel like aliens. And it's especially hard to root for a father who is almost downright unlikable at times. In fact, for the first half of the movie, I found myself hating almost everything about Viggo Mortensen's Ben Cash, the titular Captain Fantastic. To me, Cash is a psychopath, someone depriving his children and his family of basic, essential needs. I don't disagree with all of his principles, but I do find his methods to be problematic. In some ways, Cash feels like a cult leader, needlessly brainwashing his children with every bit of knowledge that fits his worldview. Mortensen goes all in with his performance, and for much of the movie, I was desperately hoping that Cash would get his comeuppance.
Yet somehow, Ross manages to pull off a monumental feat- he turns Cash into a human being, somebody worth sympathizing with. Because while Mortensen plays Ben as a man who is absolutely certain of his convictions, Ross isn't. He realizes that he has to work to get the audience to care about Ben. He realizes that many people would consider Ben's methods to be wrong, that most won't understand why he is subjecting his kids to this harsh world. And so what does Ross do? He turns Captain Fantastic into a referendum on Ben. He asks the question that is on every audience member's mind- "Is there a human being beneath this philosophical shell?" At first, I thought he wasn't going to take that route. But the narrative quickly turns, and for a good chunk of the runtime, this film is a breakdown of what makes Ben tick, a conversation-starter about a wide range of controversial views, and an examination of the true nature of family. All of this makes Captain Fantastic a bold and beautiful film, a memorable character study that turns into a surprisingly poignant, emotional, and thoughtful journey.
The story of Ben Cash and his family (the kids are played by George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell) kicks into high gear when Ben's wife, the matriarch of their wilderness clan, kills herself after a bout with depression. The kids are devastated, and naturally, they want to say goodbye to their mother. But thanks to a contentious and bitter relationship with her family (especially her father, played by Frank Langella), they are banned from attending the funeral. But come on- do you really think a family who's motto is "Power to the People! Stick it to the Man!" will do what they're told? Loaded up in the family RV, the Cash clan embark on a journey to New Mexico, one that will threaten the basic fabric of Ben's grand utopian experiment.
It's rare for me to end up loving a film that I was profoundly annoyed by at first. But alas, that's what happened with Captain Fantastic. Opening initially with a naturalistic observation of the Cash family during their daily activities, the first act makes it seem like Ross is deadset on praising and normalizing the grand vision of Ben's society. But that doesn't remain the case for long, and as it crumbled, I found myself drawn in closer and closer to the world of the film. Nicholas Hamilton's Rellian is the first one to break, unleashing a profanity-laden tirade after hearing about his mom's death. When they hit the road, things get even crazier and the in-fighting doesn't stop until the end of the film. The story builds terrifically, gaining narrative and dramatic momentum as it chugs along, drawing you further and further into the world of the characters. Each scene is better and more fascinating than the last, and it leads up to a brilliant finale that hit the sweet spot for me.
Viggo Mortensen is an actor of unparalleled talent and skill, and this movie absolutely does not work without him. He has a complete and total understanding of who Ben is, and that understanding is deeply felt throughout his performance and throughout the entire film. Ben could probably be summarized by the word "different," although he'd probably call that a boring, non-word. He's philosophical, fanatical, and totally extreme in his views, and he's dedicated to a cause that pretty much belongs solely to him and his wife. He's quick to disregard modern values, a full-on Marxist, and is blatantly disrespectful of society's new set of rules. Ben's actions, views, and theories could be debated for days. I agree with some of them, and others I think are total garbage. But there's one characteristic that I haven't mentioned yet, and it's undoubtedly the most important one- Ben is a dedicated father who cares deeply about his kids. He wants them to succeed. He wants them to change the world. And he sees nothing wrong with making life harder for them sometimes.
It's hard to see the supportive nature of the character through the lens of some unsavory behavior. Because the unavoidable fact is that Ben is kind of an ass. He's the smartest guy in the room, but with his superior intelligence, he sometimes gets caught up in treating his children in a harsh, condescending manner. But something magical happens with the film- Ross and Mortensen allow Ben to grow. At the start of the film, he's horribly flawed. By the end of Captain Fantastic, he's a better person. It's what makes this one of the better character studies of the year, and frankly, one of the best I've seen in a long time. Here's a character that audiences probably won't like at first, and by the end, he's someone that I loved. Ross falls into a couple of cliche traps towards the end, but as the loose threads begin to come together, it was clear to me that Ben was emerging as a better person.
But even there, I would totally understand if someone still hated Ben and everything he stands for at the end of this film. I think it's a totally valid point to say that Ben should still be punished for everything that he put his kids through, for ignoring the clear mental health problems of his wife. And yet, even though both sides could put up a good argument, there's no denying that Captain Fantastic is an excellent piece of filmmaking, a naturally flowing and gorgeously designed actor's showcase. Ross is a phenomenal writer and director, someone with a natural eye for character and humanity. On the surface, this may seem like another "quirky" Sundance movie, but I feel like there's a level of genuine depth and emotion that isn't normally found in that realm. He's still a young filmmaker, and there's no question in my mind that we haven't seen the last of him.
Compared to most of my other reviews, this one spent an uncharacteristic amount of time discussing the particulars of the film's lead character. I wouldn't normally do that, but something about Ben truly struck me in a unique way. I think that he's certainly the most compelling character of the year in what is also one of the year's irresistibly intriguing films. Captain Fantastic is a character study that is both sweet and sad, frustrating and beautiful. It's a daring piece from a strong new directorial voice, and most critically, it's a profound and glorious statement on fatherhood, death, and family. Oh, and Viggo Mortensen gives one of the year's best performances. See it. Think about it. Discuss it. Captain Fantastic is begging for you to do all three.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.6/10)
Images courtesy of Bleecker Street