3 out of 4 stars
“Captain Fantastic” is a movie that will annoy those both on the far right and far left. Its content is packed with political and social commentary that will infuriate opposing camps. Conservatives, liberals and Libertarians will simultaneously love and hate it. In movie terms, that’s what you call, well … perfect.
Writer/director Matt Ross immediately puts himself and his cast on a tightrope with the opening scene. The family (a father and six children between 6 and 17) participate in the killing of a deer with the eldest member eating the heart of the animal whole. It’s a brilliant set-up to a film that examines and challenges the value system in America without ever taking a moral stance. That’s hard to do and, from a dramatic perspective, pure gold.
In a role seemingly custom-tailored for his intense but minimalist style, Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben, who along with his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), has decided the best way to raise their children is in the secluded woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. They grow and hunt their own food, home school their children, have minimal contact with the outside world and are in possession of no electronic devices. Because of an illness that cannot be self-treated, the movie opens with Leslie away from home, back in the regular world and it’s clear the children miss her dearly.
After receiving news about an event that effectively forces Ben’s hand, he and the children hit the road on a bus they call “Steve” and head southwest with the final destination being the desert home of Leslie’s well-to-do parents (Frank Langella as Jack and Ann Dowd as Abigail). While Jack loathes Ben, Abigail politely tolerates him and both blame him for turning Leslie into what they believe to be a misguided, idealistic, communist robot.
Before they arrive in the desert, Ben and the children make a pit stop at the home of in-laws Dave (Steve Zahn) and Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and their two boys. Arguably the best and most effective stretch of the movie, Ben’s time in the company of the relatives is top loaded with arguments about the evils of what society acknowledges to be traditional modern American family life while, again, not taking sides. Ben’s children have never seen a smartphone, nor do they know what “Nike” or “Adidas” mean, yet on the other hand can run circles around their cousins when it comes to understanding the Bill of Rights.
The real problems start when at least two of Ben’s children (three girls and three boys) get a taste of what they’ve been missing and start to question, if not challenge his draconian, borderline boot camp methods. Ben is entirely well-intended but also a tad extreme. He espouses Marxist doctrine while extolling the virtues of self-reliance and a vehement hatred of the government, fast food and commercial strip malls. He’s a walking, talking dichotomy and that might be Ross’ principal point.
Ben is the perfect real-world U.S. social barometer. In one fell swoop, he represents the entirety of America. He’s far-left and far-right and, before it’s all over, makes up a whole lot of the remaining middle ground. We never get the impression that he’s wishy-washy or that his children are not his utmost priority. He’s not a rebel but he is an outlier. He’s an optimist but also a pessimist and a pragmatist. Ben is a brilliantly conceived character and Ross fleshes him out with keen, illuminating contrast.
Although the movie clocks in at just under two hours, it feels longer due in large part to a semi-flabby third act. Two crucial consecutive scenes contradict each other and some may view the last 10 minutes as something of a narrative sellout. Ross replaces the hard edge with something far softer which ends the story with an air of not false but manufactured spiritual uplift.
It would be impossible to watch “Captain Fantastic” and not draw parallels to other aspects of our society. From child-rearing to political extremism and those on the fringe operating on a different level than the masses, it aims for the both sides of the brain and hits its targets far more often than most films.
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