Directed by: Matt Ross.
Written by: Matt Ross.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Ben), George MacKay (Bo), Samantha Isler (Kielyr), Annalise Basso (Vespyr), Nicholas Hamilton (Rellian), Shree Crooks (Zaja), Charlie Shotwell (Nai), Trin Miller (Leslie), Kathryn Hahn (Harper), Steve Zahn (Dave), Elijah Stevenson (Justin), Teddy Van Ee (Jackson), Erin Moriarty (Claire), Missi Pyle (Ellen), Frank Langella (Jack), Ann Dowd (Abigail).
There’s a moment about 80% of the way into Captain Fantastic where had the film ended, I would have liked it a hell of lot more than I did. It seems to me that the moment summed up what had happened in the movie up until then, and ended the film not on the romantic, false note I expect a film like this to end on, but on a more clear-eyed realistic one. Then, a bunch of children come up from the back of a bus, and ruin the whole thing – and turn the end of Captain Fantastic into the mushy brained, feel good ending I though the film was specifically avoiding. Oh well.
The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben – and there isn’t another actor in the world I would rather play this character. He’s an aging hippie, with six kids and a wife who has just killed herself in the mental institution she went to seeking help. She and Ben made the conscious decision years ago to raise their children deep in the woods on their own. The kids are smart – even the youngest can quite from the Bill of Rights, and the oldest – about senior in high school age – speaks 6 languages, and has an understanding of advanced science, etc. Ben is fiercely anti-corporation and thinks America is basically for sale to the highest bidder. He’s also an atheist, and his family doesn’t celebrate things like Christmas – instead, they celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. How you view Ben will depend on how you view the world – is he teaching his kids to be independent, free thinkers in a society that is increased controlled by the internet, social media and corporations, or is he just indoctrinating them with his own brand of propaganda, and by shutting them away from the rest of the world, not letting them truly decide for themselves, because they’re never exposed to a different viewpoint? As his oldest son, Bo (George Mackay) argues at one point after he humiliates himself with a girl and her mother, he knows absolutely nothing about life unless it comes from a book.
The structure of the film comes from a road trip Ben and his kids go on. Ben’s father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) has told him he is not welcome at the funeral, but Ben will not be deterred – his wife was a Buddhist, who wanted to be cremated, not have the Christian burial he’s going to have for her. The family piles into the aging bus Ben drives, and head across a few states to get there – stopping along the way at various points – most memorably, to see Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her family, before crashing the funeral.
Mortensen really is the reason – perhaps the only one – to see the film. It doesn’t matter if you, like me, think that Ben is crazy – Mortensen is fully committed to showing this character, and all of his sides, that Ben is fascinating to watch no matter what your thoughts on him are. Mortensen, who has pretty much rejected stardom since The Lord of the Rings made him one more than a decade ago, has always followed his own path – doing some strange art house films, for major auteurs – and working with Cronenberg three times in the past decade. He’s the perfect fit for this role – and he delivers a fine performance.
The movie around him though doesn’t stand up as well as Mortensen’s performance though. I had thought that the movie was making the rather bold claim that its main characters was not a suitable caregiver to his kids – something backed up pretty consistently by the movie at nearly every stage. That, would have been a rather daring stance to take – the noble, independent thinker who completely fucked up his kids. But the film pulls its punches right when it need to land them – pulling back, and instead finding a compromise ending, that is supposed to make us feel good – but instead made me feel bad for all involved.
I don’t think the final scenes of Captain Fantastic make it a bad movie – there is more than enough here to make it an interesting one. But the films ending does confuse the message it is going for – ending up with a jumbled mess. Captain Fantastic is an interesting movie to be sure – but I wish it had more faith in the audience – either by following through and making its main character truly unlikable, or at the very least letting the audience decide for themselves. Instead, it crams a happy ending down our throat, despite the fact that it’s impossible to deny all the damage that has already been done.