Upon watching the trailer for Captain Fantastic and looking at the posters, I muttered to myself: “Oh, must be the time of the year when quirky family dramas that played at Sundance hit theaters.” So, imagine my reaction when the credits rolled and a family led by Viggo Mortensen were all body painted and hunting a deer down in the forest. While something this jarring swayed me to think the movie was headed in a different direction, director/writer Matt Ross’ sophomore effort takes so many ideas and puts them through the grinder otherwise known as a straightforward dramatic narrative. The refusal to open the film up to something more insightful slights the concept of a family of survivalists acclimating to normal society. Luckily, that dramatic tedium is bolstered by a slew of great performances.
Let me set the stage for you here: A father of six, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), raises his kids in woods of the Pacific Northwest with focus on a rigorous physical and intellectual education. For instance, his 8-year-old daughter memorized the Bill Of Rights and knows how to skin an animal instead of watching any kind of educational TV. When Ben’s estranged wife passes away, he must wrestle with whether or not he should expose his kids to the real world.
There’s an interesting conceit to raising a bunch of people in the woods, closing them off from any other worldview than your own. I kept imagining how such a singular way of living could wreck someone psychologically and socially if exposed to actual society. The skill of hunting game and reciting Karl Marx as if they were aphorisms wouldn’t really matter at an office job, would it? Sure, that’s a more pragmatic take, but what if the home education was a way for Ben to shield his children from the things that hurt him in the real world? Ah, we’ve gotten to the core of Captain Fantastic now.
Like I mentioned earlier, though, Mortensen and a talented group make the tedium go down easy. Mortensen plays Ben almost like he’s in a completely different movie, showing almost no regard for his kids as he puts him through a ringer of strenuous activity. Whether it’s rock climbing, jumping over ravines, or making them choose between normalized society and dangerous living with him, Mortensen is aces and makes the moral quandary of the story (good or not) easily digestible. George MacKay, who plays Ben’s son Bodevan, is also stellar as the perfect example of the shortcomings of life as a survivalist.
The intriguing thing about Captain Fantastic is the way Matt Ross goes about the story. While the movie is truly about finding a middle ground when it’s obvious that your teachings are hindering your kids’ lives, Ross doubles down on the drama instead of recoiling and letting these damaged (or are they?) characters act out with their deepest emotions, like resent. Even though Ross pulls back to let Mortensen do the thing he knows how to do, there’s a weird rhythmic undercurrent that pops up a couple of times throughout the film. One of his sons starts tapping on the side of wood to start a beat, making the other members of the troupe create their own beats to complement his. Soon, a full-fledged primal septet breaks out and it intercuts with things resembling togetherness inside the family. Spare the saccharine outcome, Ross actually had something interesting going there that the rest of the film did not; it was subscribing to their survivalist nature without slighting it with something easy and tear-jerking.
While I wasn’t taken with Captain Fantastic and its dedication to not digging deep for something better than the actual story, the talent on display here is well-handled and utilized by Ross’ direction and writing. When it comes to some of the films which premiered at Sundance, you’re likely to find something much more naive than what Ross has concocted.