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.