“Captain Fantastic” begins with a gorgeous opening shot that pans a dense forest canopy. It’s followed by an equally beautiful shot on the forest floor gazing up at the tree tops. The soothing quiet is only interrupted by the hypnotic sounds of nature. The sequence highlights the natural beauty but also the remoteness of the setting. It doesn’t take long for us to learn why this is important.
Actor Matt Ross wrote and directed this movie that on the surface resembles a left-wing fairytale. Viggo Mortensen plays a father named Ben who lives in isolation deep in the forest with his six children. They live off the land (as much as possible), have impromptu Woodstock-esque campfire jams, and frequently discuss the merits of Marxism, Trotskyism, humanism, anti-capitalism and a hodgepodge of other left-leaning isms. They even celebrate Noam Chomsky Day, for goodness sake!
But there is so much more beyond that surface-level first impression. Ross’s story digs deeper into these characters unfolding a plethora of complexities, inner-conflicts, and motivations. After several unforeseen turns we not only see these characters in a new light, but the entire movie itself becomes something completely unexpected. It becomes a movie not interested in politics, but in what makes these characters tick.
This film truly works better the less you know. I will say Ben and his kids aren’t without some contact with the outside world. Sometimes they hop into their bus/motor home (affectionately named Steve) and hit a small market for supplies. They check their post office box and Ben makes one or two necessary calls before heading back into the wilderness. But one day he gets some troubling news which sets the direction for the remainder of the movie.
What follows is a weird but enthralling concoction that features genre slices from American road trip movies to pitch black comedies. And while there is a small ‘liberal versus conservative’ narrative and their are some interesting social observations, this isn’t a political film. It’s incredibly open and fair in its characterizations. That’s because it is interested in something much deeper and more provocative. The discussions Ross wants us to have are beyond socialism vs. capitalism. He challenges us to look deeper into ourselves.
For all this film does well Mortensen is the biggest highlight. In a nomination-worthy performance he takes this peculiar, off-beat character and depicts him with such bruising authenticity. He is the centerpiece and one of the film’s most compelling questions is whether or not Ben is a good father. At times the answer seems obvious while other times we can’t help but wonder. Yet we never doubt his love for his children. Mortensen is essential to selling this character. His performance is far from flashy. It’s subtle, completely unselfish, and works well with the really talented young cast.
Matt Ross’s story of this off-the-grid family clashing with the outside world naturally has its funny moments. But it’s also a film filled with genuine feeling. Ultimately “Captain Fantastic” is about the willingness to listen and be open. It speaks against separating ourselves and speaks to the idea of balance, both in our convictions and in our willingness to learn from others. It speaks to balance in our relationships with others and with the world around us. It’s a meaningful message wrapped up in a superb film guaranteed to be unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS