Captain Fantastic or Mr Irresponsible?
Director: Matt Ross Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella Running Time: 118 minutes
Captain Fantastic is a road film with a difference. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six who has misguidedly decided to raise his children in the woods with no formal education. When his wife Leslie dies, the bubble bursts and slowly Ben comes to face the fact that perhaps encouraging your children to run wild isn’t the best parenting style after all. This revelation dawns as the family climb aboard their hippy-style school bus – affectionately named Steve – to venture into civilisation to attend Leslie’s funeral. Unfortunately, her father is no fan of Ben’s so there are a few bumps in the road.
The film bursts open in first-person perspective of a deer being stabbed to death as part of a strange coming-of-age ritual Ben has dreamt up for his eldest son Bodevan. Captain Fantastic holds little back and this is a powerful way to warn the audience. It’s bloody and visceral and claustrophobic and yet strangely intimate; something about seeing tiny Nai in a onesie immediately after this violent encounter is very disarming. Ross maintains this intimate feel throughout which gives this film an authentic family vibe.
After the film’s title comes up, we’re given a visual run through of the family’s survivalist setup and Ben gives the children an hour before ‘training’ starts. We soon discover that training involves an intense workout routine. At this early stage in the narrative, it’s really difficult to tell whether the film is being critical of Ben’s unorthodox parenting style or not. So far, the kids seem happy and incredibly physically fit. Next we’re introduced to the family’s education; Ben checks his various childrens’ progress in their homeschooling around a campfire. They’re all reading advanced literature and spouting nuanced opinions on what they’re reading. Ben leads them in a musical performance that Rellian dominates by playing his drum off-beat in a clear act of defiance against his father. Ben embraces Rellian’s beat and the entire family begins to complement his angry drumming. This is an effective bit of the famous show-don’t-tell to convey Rellian’s disillusionment and Ben’s response. Ross cleverly uses the early portion of the film to answer any questions we may have about the family’s lifestyle before tackling the issues it births.
Things take a turn however when Bo and Ben visit the local shop for supplies and money. Once we reach any kind of civilisation it becomes clear that Bo is completely socially inept, he awkwardly checks out two girls his age but gets angry at the prospect of speaking to them because he assumes they’re shallow. Ben’s strict regimen for his children clearly doesn’t include social development and it is at this point that the curtain is beginning to be drawn back on this Wizard.
Ben is shown to be similarly emotionally stunted when he finally gets through to his sister to get an update on Leslie and upon finding out she killed herself simply pauses before asking how. He proceeds to hang up on his crying sister mid-sentence. Yes, his wife has just died and he is in shock but as we see later, Ben has little respect for the feelings of his family, let alone Leslie’s.
Ben prides himself on being honest with his children, so in one of the film’s most powerful scenes he calmly announces to them “Last night, Mommy killed herself. She finally did it”. Again, yes he’s grieving and clearly devastated that he’s lost his wife but this really does not excuse his lack of tact with his children. What makes this scene so affecting is the fact that he chooses to do this while they are at their most vulnerable, right before bedtime. The kids all have different, convincing emotional responses, with the strongest coming from the rebellious Rellian. Considering the youth of these actors, this scene could have easily rang false but Ross draws truly impressive performances from these kids.
Harper, Ben’s sister Harper played by Kathryn Hahn, tries to meet Ben halfway even though she disagrees with his extreme parenting style. She has him and his brood over for dinner and made an effort to get free-range, non-GMO organic food. Ben shows no appreciation for her efforts and his kids follow this negative example. Her husband Dave tries to keep things light and civil but this completely breaks down when his kids ask how Leslie died. Unlike Ben, Harper and Dave believe in sheltering their children so Dave attempts a few explanations, all of which add up to her dying of ‘complications’ from her illness. At this stage, the film seems to be firmly behind Ben and his children, setting up this cushy suburban family as the worst case scenario of nuclear family existence. I couldn’t help but be uncomfortable that Captain Fantastic seemed to be ignoring the fact that a middle ground exists between “Mommy killed herself” and utter avoidance. This discomfort grew when Ben insists on telling his nephews that his wife committed suicide and goes on to serve his children wine after Harper goes off to bed in an understandable bout of anger.
At best, Ben is an irresponsible man-child who needs to face the drawbacks of his living situation. He sees fit to burst into Leslie’s funeral dressed in a bold red suit with his similarly inappropriately dressed children and imposes his new-age bullshit on all of the mourners. Even though Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella) dislikes Ben and banned him from the funeral, he still made sure that Ben was appropriately recognised in the ceremony as the love of her life. It’s frustrating that he refuses to meet anyone halfway. Especially when we can so clearly see the negative affect this is having on his children, from Bo having so little understanding of social cues that he proposes to the first girl he kisses to Rellian’s barely controlled rage and Nai’s disturbing shrine to Pol Pot. At worst, over the course of the film we see two of Ben’s six children get seriously injured. When Rellian decides to stay with his grandparents because he craves structure and normalcy, instead of respecting his decision Ben brings his kids in on a ‘rescue mission’ which ends with one of his kids in the emergency room. Thankfully, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and Ben finally begins to accept that things need to change.
The family go on to ‘rescue’ Leslie by digging her up to give her the kind of send-off she would have wanted. While this is another example of questionable parenting, it leads to a touching sing-song of Leslie’s favourite song ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. The family say goodbye to Leslie and Bo in quick succession at the airport, as Bo decides to go and find himself instead of going to the Ivy League. To bring the story to a close, Ross introduces us to the family’s new set-up, they have a house and Ben sends them off to school but they’re still clearly holding onto aspects of their former lifestyle. We have reached the middle ground that the film desperately needed.
Captain Fantastic is an honest portrayal of the strange ways that grief can break us down, twist us beyond recognition and eventually set us free. While Ben’s reaction to his wife’s suicidal intentions and death are understandable and sympathetic, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that he has been a negligent father and has not only stood by but actively encouraged his children to get into harmful situations. Like the family’s freshly slaughtered meals, Captain Fantastic takes some digesting but it is an intriguing film well-executed and definitely worth a watch. If you tend to enjoy films that deal in emotional catharsis – think Wild, Into the Wild, Eat Pray Love, that kind of thing – check this out.(3.5 / 5)
Captain Fantastic reaches Irish cinemas on September 9th.