Just How Would Captain Fantastic Feel About His Own Film?

An average day at Ben Cash's commune -- at least in his mind -- would make Iron Man competitions look like intermediate intramural fluff.

Captain Fantastic

Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, George MacKay
US Release Date: 2016-07-08

Captain Fantastic refers to its titular character, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), a devout woodsman and Chomskyite who stewards a forest commune of his six children, ages seven through 18, in the temperate and bountiful Pacific Northwest. Ben is a fine "captain" who has vigorously earned the allegiance of his tribe, each of who dutifully participate in a daily regimen of bluff climbing, running, bow hunting (no guns), and precise analytical readings and presentations of heavy works, a sample of which includes MiddleMarch, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and particle physics. Indeed, an average day at Ben's commune -- at least in his mind -- would make Iron Man competitions look like intermediate intramural fluff and even the most demanding University programs as exploitative rackets with an emphasis on regurgitation for an ultimately unquestioned existence.

While Ben's militant adherence to the commune's perpetuation is intriguing, Captain Fantastic the film has an at times frustratingly milder agenda, which subsumes Ben and guides him toward formulaic solutions which temper the full realization of any kind righteous philosophical bent.

When given the opportunity, Viggo Mortensen convincingly meshes roles as concerned father and wilderness commando into a richly layered, organically driven performance. There are a trove of human interest pieces on Mortensen as an earthy, hyper-intelligent polyglot whose uncompromising conviction to push the envelope is tempered by a gentle reserve. When Captain Fantastic simply lets Viggo be Viggo, the film often thrives.

At the film's onset, Bodevan Cash (George MacKay) completes a deer hunting mission which doubles as a tribal rite of passage -- after killing the deer with a knife, Bodevan eats a chunk of the deer's heart to complete his entry into manhood. Five kids look on. Had their father been played by a lesser actor, concern or outrage may be a lasting affect which would stymie the film's intellectual aspirations. However, Ben guides the ceremony with tender, almost resigned deliberation, signifying at once a captain's deeply felt pride for his soldier's acceptance of a profound rite, but also a parent's lamentation of the task's potentially traumatic effects. Mortensen, his worldly and humanistic touch reflecting so many emotions at once, is an ideal surrogate for the audience to relax their outrage and reflect on Ben's motivations more holistically.

The first act of Captain Fantastic operates at this high level, combining poignant dialogue, acute visual attention to commune life's daily rigors, and expressive physical performance, to establish a lived-in feel. This segment is a terrific film within the film, and one which may leave some longing for its continuance. But if that's the case, then perhaps your film of choice is closer to Embrace of the Serpent (2016), where a full-blown chaotic relationship to the wilderness is explored, or JauJa (2015), starring Mortensen, in which there is no formulaic interference with his character's fate. In Captain Fantastic, however, the final two acts vigorously seek express formulaic reasons for Ben's Thoreau-meets-Chomsky lifestyle, which gravitates Ben's choice more toward an experiment.

The formulas begin to take hold when Ben's departed wife and mother of six, Leslie Cash, commits suicide. A road trip to Leslie's funeral commences and, just as soon as the engine revs up, the film transforms into a plot-orientated machine. One stark story device centers on whether the Cash family will honor Leslie's demand, incorporated in a will, to be cremated will succeed over her ultra-rich and hippie-hating father Jack's (Frank Langella) insistence on having a Catholic funeral. The plot thickens even more excessively when Jack responds to Ben's explanation of his daughter's will with threats of a custody petition -- a point which not only insults both Ben and Jack's intelligence, but also overwhelms the film's prior nuanced character study into a sublimely fascinating family.

The same can be said for an interlude at Ben's sister's home (Kathryn Hahn), which is more or less a side-by-side diagram of suburbanite conformity versus nonconformist life in the wild, with copious amounts of judgmental poo flung at the former. There's no need for this exposition, particularly when later in the film, the split is summed up by far more elegantly when we see Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) playing a first-person hunter game at Jacks's stately home, the electronic light bathed over his face while Ben watches in a shadowy corner.

Of course, non-conformist judgments aren't objectionable, as hippies have taken more than their fair share of mockery from the establishment, so why not a few films which turn matters the other way? Fair enough, but Captain Fantastic never follows through with its judgments and their consequences. There is, for example, a side-plot as to whether Bodevan will choose to attend Harvard and break away from the relatively innocuous fits of anti-social behavior, both which are formulaic if not somewhat Easy Street affairs. Ben has his great parental epiphany on none other than Jack's wide, sun kissed lawn.

At the beginning of the Captain Fantastic, concerns were on whether Ben's kids would weather a bluff climb in a downpour. Fireside discussions flowed about Trotsky and great literature. Now this? What happened?

Depending on the audience, the answers will vary. One could argue Captain Fantastic is a sophomoric script altered by mainstream considerations. It can also be convincingly argued that within the film itself, contemporary American life was knocking at the door, and Ben's parental instincts demanded compromise.

But there's a scene midway through Captain Fantastic which underpins the film's prevailing intentions. Ben, who just led his kids on a "free the food" mission at a Supermarket, buys a store cake likely full of artificial ingredients which he has outlawed from his commune for years. The cake is somewhat ironically in honor of "Noam Chomsky" day, and Ben stuffs his face with a mouthful of gooey deliciousness. The scene is a microcosm of Captain Fantastic, which has its Captain, and eats him, too.





In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.