Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella
Director: Matt Ross
Running Time: 118 mins
Synopsis: Ben Cash (Mortensen), his wife Leslie, and his six children live in the wilderness. Hunting for food, building everything for themselves and educating their children to think critically whilst training to extreme physical peakness. After Leslie tragically dies, the family find themselves venturing into society and the challenges that presents to their sheltered existence.
Raising a child is difficult. This is not from personal experience, although I am aware of what a bastard I could be to my parents, but from numerous movie iterations of parenthood. From the really dark side of We Need to Talk about Kevin, to the slightly more hopeful and realistic Boyhood, parenthood is a vital theme prevalent in a huge amount of films. Captain Fantastic seeks to find a new angle. Tackling the intriguing Cash family ideology, that of a complete need to discard all traditional methods of child rearing and focus on primitive skills alongside the philosophical and intellectual education taught via honesty and literature. It is a unique approach and almost immediately you can see the inherent danger in raising kids this way. The film succeeds, however, in never taking sides. We see the immense positives of being truthful at all times to your children but also the innate concerns of not shielding your kids from uncomfortable truths, personified in Steve Zahn (where did he go?) and Kathryn Hahn’s ‘regular’ parents.
Shot with a steady hand and a keen eye, debut director Matt Ross follows his leads’ suit and shoots with a direct honesty, never shying away from the brutal moments. Most notably in an opening scene of quiet beauty punctuated by a graphic moment of violence designed as a rite of passage for MacKay’s Bodevan. As we follow the family into the big scary world Ross uses close-ups to really sell the conflicting emotions these kids face as they both enjoy and fear what comes their way.
He is helped massively by a terrific cast. Each one of the young Cash clan deliver naturalistic and sincere performances. They are required to carry quite heavy material and do so with aplomb. Child performers can always veer into the realm of large gesticulation rather than actual acting but here there is none of that. MacKay is a particular standout, building on his stellar work in last years Pride, with a performance of real complexity. Ridiculously clever but knowing nothing of the actual world has left him unable to grasp basic concepts. His flustering first kiss results in a moment that is equal parts funny, charming and desperately sad.
Viggo Mortensen is the true winner here though. Delivering possibly his finest ever performance, Mortensen (who has always seemed one step away from wilderness living anyway) is utterly heartbreaking here. A quiet man who has nothing but good intentions. The fact so much goes wrong and yet he still clings on to his way of life is troublesome but utterly human. His ego may be all that prevents him from genuinely being an amazing father. One scene captures what a subtle physical performer he can be. During a confrontation with an angry Bodevan (yes this is a made up name and yes they do call attention to it) Ben faces the unwelcome realisation that for all the intelligence and skills he has instilled in his family they are incapable of being normal people. He portrays this with nothing but a slouch and his expressive eyes, and it is devastating.
This is endemic of the film as a whole. Never once sliding into melodrama, even when the story hits familiar beats, notably the battle to keep custody from the well-off (and representatives of the bourgeois capitalism the family seek to avoid) parents of the deceased Leslie. Played by the always delightful Ann Dowd and the go to wizened eye-twinkly old bastard Frank Langella. You will cry but you never knowingly feel like you’ve been manipulated. In fact scenes such as the family hearing of their matriarchs passing are almost uncomfortable in their simplicity and lack of manipulative music.
In having such a minor story the film cannot help but feel stretched thin at times but every scene is always used effectively to showcase another aspect of this fascinating family. You can’t help but fall in love with them and in its final moments you realise that even though you may not agree with their way of life, this is one Captain you’d be more than happy to sail with.
Verdict: Full of heart, humour and life. Featuring a plethora of great performances and a never better Viggo Mortensen, this is a film that can confidently live up to its exuberant title.