Review: Captain Fantastic

A good thing about a slow news cycle is that I have time to explore my real passion of cultural aspects in regards to entertainment like film, music, and literature.  That allowed me to pick up an new indie movie I wanted to watch and which recently was released on home video.  It's called Captain Fantastic.

Now, don't let that title fool you, this is not another title into the comic book superhero genre, which seems to be the only category of film these days that can draw in a large box office in theaters.  However, despite not featuring earth's mightiest heroes battling larger than life aliens and robots, Captain Fantastic is a bit fantastical in conception.  Why the movie is actually called "Captain Fantastic" is really mystery to me.

The story revolves around a man named Ben, superbly played by Viggo Mortensen, and his six children of varying ages who live deep in the wooded mountains of what appear to be the pacific northwest.  The story takes place in modern day but what is unique about this family is that they are living completely off the grid and in a pure state of nature.  

The film opens with a fantastic scene of the oldest son Bo, played by George MacKay, ambushing and killing a mule deer with nothing but his bare hands and a knife.  His father, Ben, proclaims Bo's passage into manhood in front of the rest of the children who were watching the hunt from their own camouflaged positions. This immediately sets up the mood for the central characters throughout the rest of the film.  

This family is primitive and tribalistic as if they were indigenous people living off the land 100 years ago or perhaps even as modern post-apocalyptic preppers see their lifestyles when the proverbial 'shit hits the fan.'  They shower in the rivers, they have a greenhouse full of herbs and vegetables, they have constructed wooden structures to inhabit, some barely wear any clothing, and they coexist together in a very tight-knit cohesive family community.

But we soon discover what makes this family even more unique from say, some village of savages living in the backwoods - they are highly intelligent.  At night the father has them read great works of literature, science, politics, and philosophy for their education and then recite their intellectual reviews of what they've read.  They play music together harmoniously with simply instruments around the campfire to relax, they have a daily rigorous exercise routine, and they take on complex group challenges like big rock wall climbing together.  It is all highly unorthodox but quite an interesting approach to child rearing...until you realize that Ben takes a more blunt professorial approach to parenting where he teaches the children the cold hard facts but also encourages them to think for themselves.  This sounds good in the onset but becomes problematic later on in the story as the children become more exposed to the modern world.

Shortly through the opening of the movie, you learn that the mother is missing from their rugged home because she has been in the hospital for a while now and Ben and Bo must travel together into town via an old modified school/church bus to get word of her health and to gather supplies.  This is the catalyst that shapes the movies main plot, because it turns out the mother has taken her own life after struggling with some extended psychological disorder.  We learn that his father-in-law, played by Frank Langella, blames Ben for not only influencing his daughter to raise their family out in the wild but also for not getting his daughter the help she needed sooner.  So, he bars Ben from attending his wife's own funeral and warns him if he shows up that he will be arrested on the spot.

This of course only emboldens the rebellious nature of Ben, who you realize is a very radicalized leftist anti-authoritarian.  After bluntly relaying the news of their mother's suicide and after careful debate on the repercussions of their potential actions, Ben and the children ultimately decide to set a course for New Mexico to attend the mother's funeral despite his father-in-law's stern warnings.  The bulk of the rest of the movie revolves around the family's interactions with the modern public and each other as they meet and interact with strangers and estranged family members along their way to the mother's funeral.

Written and directed by a relative new filmmaker named Matt Ross.  I found his premise of the story to be very captivating primarily because of the unique fish-out-of-water story of a family exploring and coping with a world they have been sheltered from as well as for the dynamic of how the children cope with not only losing their mother but also coming to terms that their own father has essentially kept them prisoner from the world.

You can tell that Mortensen's character is a very radicalized ideologue with perhaps some kind of academic background.  He seems to have some kind of leftist neo-hippie philosophy of primitivism where the modern world has become corrupted by consumerism, corporations, and perverted science.  He makes numerous mentions to malfeasance of modern institutions like hospitals, the food industry, and the education system.  He has the audacity, in defiance and in spite of organized religion and holidays, to celebrate the fanciful holiday of "Noam Chomsky Day" in recognition of the radical leftist philosopher in which he allows the children to indulge on a special treat of processed sugary foods.  It is stated later in the movie that his goal was to isolate his family so not only would his children be raised to "philosopher kings" in a unique paradise but also so his wife perhaps would become mentally well.  But it is his own egotism in this regard that pushes his family away from him throughout the movie.

The children are quite astute, disciplined, and curious.  They make a point in the film to show how advanced the children are in academic proficiency compared to their civilized older cousins.  But despite Ben's rigid tutelage of book knowledge, survival training, and very open libertine lifestyles, the children seem to have a wanting for more exposure to the outside normal world and cultures found therein.  When exposed to the stark reality of the real world, the children learn just how ignorant they are despite their vast intellectual knowledge.  This winds up leading to a defiant argument between Ben and his eldest son Bo in which he proclaims, "if it doesn't come out of a book, I don't know anything!"  And that is really the heart of why the story is intriguing.

Ben's obsession in controlling and harboring his family from the real world, and ultimately from the people that reside in that world, has had a nasty backlash of consequences that has made his children resentful and has exposed the flaw in his entire stringent philosophy.  Instead of exposing them to bits and pieces of what he has deemed abominable in order to learn through experience, he has essentially created a cult, shut off from the rest of society.  The only culture the children know is that of their father's.  Things only become more exacerbated when the mother dies.  And when Ben eventually confronts his father-in-law, you can tell that despite all his book know-how and philosophical prowess, he is frightened by the evident truth expressed by his father-in-law to what he is doing to his children's well-being.  He has swung the pendulum of nature over nurture too far and he is now a far greater threat to them than the world he was sheltering them from.

In this regard, this movie tells a fantastic story hierarchy of self-reflection and coming to grips with human understanding.  It is well directed and all the actors, even the children, give very good performances throughout.  Viggo Mortensen especially gives another solid dynamic portrayal of a man who is juggling his own ardent philosophical beliefs while also trying to raise a family without his partner in this great social experiment.   However, I did have one problem with the story which will spoil the ending.  So, I suggest if you are interested in the premise, then you should definitely watch the full movie and read this portion later, otherwise consider yourself warned.

Although the story arch of 90% of this film was straightforward and very compelling in my opinion, the ending derails quite a bit from what was built up upon through the majority of the film and well after the climax.  The story culminates with Ben and his children crashing the funeral of their mother as intended.  Ben gives a obscene lecture in the middle of the church service to a large congregation on how his wife was a philosophical Buddhist and that her last remaining wishes were to be cremated and flushed down a toilet.  Ben's father-in-law then proceeds to have him thrown out of the church and then banned from the rest of the funeral at the risk of arrest, as also previously warned.

Well, a subplot boils up throughout the movie between Ben and his younger son, Rellian.  The younger son is resentful of his father because he blames him for his mother's untimely demise. So, after the funeral fiasco, Rellian runs away to his grandparents' home.  After unsuccessfully trying to plead with his son and his father-in-law for Rellian to return with the rest of his family, Ben then resorts to having one of his daughters try to spring his son out of his grandparent's large home.  This pseudo-rescue attempt ends with the daughter falling from the home's rooftop and being taken to the emergency room.  This was the climax of the story arch in my opinion.  It was the moment when Ben realized his radical idealized reality was an imminent psychological and physical danger to his own children.  It was at this juncture that Ben decides to hand over his children to their grandparents to raise as Ben would return to his life away from society.  He even symbolizes this turning point by shaving his beard as he wistfully drives away leaving his children behind for their own good.

To me, this would have been a fantastic resolution to bring the film to an end.  But almost as if to justify Ben's bad behavior, the movie cuts to a scene where his children were secretly stowed away in a compartment in the bus.  Nothing is ever said of how the grandparents felt about the children, they just gained custody over, just disappearing.  The reunited family then proceeds to go back to their unconventional behavior by digging up the dead body of their mother and then burning it upon a funeral pyre and then flushing the ashes down an airport toilet.  This entire portion of the film was quite bizarre although you can tell they were trying to give the children some kind of final closure with the death of their mother and a bit of atonement to their father who was willing to let them go.

The film ends with the eldest son Bo leaving on a plane ticket to begin his adult life in the unknown world and instead of returning his children to their grandparents it appears that Ben meets his children's wishes halfway by moving their family to a rural farm where his children can get the best of both worlds: they are not completely isolated from society but also where Ben can instill his radical values on them.

It's not that I disagreed with this ending, because I enjoyed how the family ultimately stayed together and kept their liberal independence intact; but rather that it seemed tacked on far from the original resolution of the story where Ben came to grips with his own failings as a guardian.  Essentially, this seemed to be a bit of an unearned redemption for the character.

But overall, I recommend this movie for its quirky story and performances despite personally disagreeing with nearly everything the main character philosophically believes.