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It seems unavoidable to not become philosophical when evaluating films like Captain Fantastic. It is easy to cheer for the passion of this reclusive family and to agree with many of their views on the modern world. On the other hand, this depiction of childrearing, the family’s combative tone and their antisocial nature make for a mixed reaction to this family drama.
The introduction to Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his family begins deep in the recesses of the forest of the American Northwest. He and his six children are hunting a deer with knives and on overtaking their quarry, the family celebrates by making the quest a right of passage to manhood for the eldest son, Bodevan (George MacKay). This opening scene provides a glimpse into what will come in this film and that it will not be a typical family drama. Some of it being a throwback to a bygone era with a touch of modern reality mixed with a healthy amount of discomfort. Ben and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have built a sanctuary for their family that includes living off of the land, vigorous physical activity and the study of the world’s philosophers. Their world has a utopian feel to it, but then tragedy strikes with Leslie’s death and the family is forced to engage with contemporary society. This family unit’s adventure into Western culture causes a duality of tension with society at large and within their family. Their journey becomes a lesson in how an uncommon family deals with the realities of life and death. Ben has to come to terms with the choices that he has made for his family. He must determine the sacrifices to make for the sake of his children’s future and what lengths he is willing to go to in honouring the memory of his beloved wife.
Captain Fantastic rips open the belief in what people should consider about modern society and challenges each contributing factor to the Western mindset. Some of the experiences in the film should cause people to notice some of the fallacies of the this present world. The commentary about materialism, fitness levels and unnecessary inhibitions of Western culture plays out with biting accuracy and humour. Director Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) presents a post-modern approach of engaging multiple philosophies to be considered by all age brackets, even though most of these propositions cannot co-exist in real life situations. Ross confronts a multitude of issues, from today’s teaching methods to the direction of the current world system.
This relatively unknown director capitalises on the acting performances of his cast to drive home his messages. They provide some of the most poignant and raw depictions of a family dealing with grief in recent memory. Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings trilogy) continues to prove that he is one of the most underutilised talents in Hollywood. His portrayal of the loving, but tenacious father is captivating, even though it cannot be held up as a stellar example of fatherhood. The cast of children provide a beautiful, if not unsettling illustration of individuals who are influenced by the domineering personality of their father. They show how they are encouraged to think freely within the confines of the philosophical views of their parents. Without agreeing with their worldview or methods, the Captain Fantastic story straddles the line of loyalty within a family and how easily a cult can be established. Matt Ross is able to extract strong performances out of his cast that convey an anti-societal view mixed with a value for strong family relations. The end result is an unsettling, but thoughtful time at the cinemas.
The message of the film runs up against the materialism of today’s western culture, but fails to deliver a satisfactory solution to the problem that it addresses. The humanistic approach fails to provide an appealing justification to this family’s unique lifestyle. What Ross does develop is an appreciation for those who are zealous to live as they desire regardless of the repercussions from the community around them. This film is for audiences who enjoy considering all of the philosophies of the world, those who enjoy the examination of counter-culture lifestyles, and for those who enjoy having their belief systems shaken to their very core.
There is quite a bit to celebrate in this film, but the ultimate message is unnerving and lacks appeal. Viggo Mortensen is an acting force and the children deliver great performances in this cinematic outing that will leave audiences questioning what they believe.