Captain Fantastic (2016)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn (that’s weird—Hahn, Zahn)
Directed by: Matt Ross (Not much of a director but he played Luis Carruthers in American Psycho)
Synopsis: Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, who is successfully raising his 6 children in a forest, off the grid from civilization. When his wife dies he must make a choice to travel back to “normal society” for her funeral. Hilarity and drama ensue.
What works: Viggo was nominated this year for best actor in his role as Ben Cash and rightfully so. He easily is a fantastic actor and does a much more nuanced and more powerful performance than fucking Casey Affleck did. The rest of the ensemble cast did a fantastic job as well, considering they are mostly children ages from 7–18 with very little prior film experience. Viggo’s character reminded me of Harrison Ford’s character as inventor Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast (now I have a fantastic urge to rewatch that classic) where both characters are so disillusioned by modern western society that they leave it for good to make due on their own in nature. Viggo, by contrast still lives in the USA though but same determination nonetheless.
It’s a very entertaining and poignant film, especially in this new era of Trumpian America where science, history and progress is more or less frowned upon in favor for populism. The film was made prior to the 2016 election so there’s no direct correlation to the present but it hit me all the same in how, well, dumbed down, this country feels to me now. There’s a scene where Ben is staying with his sister (Katherine Haaaaaaaaaaahn!!!!!) and she feels that Ben is abusing his children by not giving them a ‘proper’ public education. He then quizzes her dimwitted pre-teen boys what the bill of rights are and they basically have zero clue. He then asks his youngest child what it is and he gives an explanation that would put 97% of congressman to shame. So the film makes a point in showing that just because it’s not a ‘proper’ education doesn’t mean it’s worse off. Was the point exaggerated? I hardly think so.
And while the film is entertaining us with the sort of new-age fish out of water scenario for this survivalist, self-reliant, wilderness, hippy family it has it’s equal share of comedy and drama. The eldest son, Bo, is the highlight in which he finally overcomes his fear of approaching girls and makes an ass of himself courting one in a trailer park he also has a standout scene in which he scolds his stubborn father that he he’s completely under-prepared for the ‘real world’ when he reveals to Ben that he got accepted into 5 or 6 Ivy League colleges. I’d much rather watch this sort of drama then the crap that Manchester By the Sea shat out of its rectum.
The way the tone is established is also great. The very beginning scene has a deer brutally killed by a mud-caked Bo with just his own strength and a hunting knife like a scene out of First Blood. After the deer is slain, the entire mud-caked family emerges from the wood and Ben tells Bo that he is now a man. It’s very primal and Native-Americanesque and for the next half-hour or so the film is on a very serious tone until they leave the wilderness on their bus (named ‘Steve’) to travel to the funeral and then there’s some quirkiness and funny, light-hearted moments like them robbing a grocery store, celebrating Noam Chomsky day and Viggo standing buck naked outside the trailer park to the chagrin of the other residents. Looking back now at this contrast it enhances the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the transition from serious wilderness life to somewhat zany and screwball modern society.
What fails: I had a few nitpicks with the film. One was the scene I just mentioned about Ben and the kids robbing the grocery store. It bothers me because up until that point, the film made Ben and his kin, morally superior in a lot of ways in contrast to modern society. Ben is a renaissance man, who is a hunter-gatherer, musician, highly educated and well-read who ingrains his children in a higher code of well-being. He doesn’t want to be a part of society because he feels its corrupt and self-serving. Sure, he can be an iconoclast and we want him to give ‘the man’ the middle finger but at the same time we want him to set that better example. Robbing a grocery store was not right for his character. I understand it’s supposed to show how little he cares for society’s rules but he is acting against all moral codes robbing innocent people.
The other scene that bugged me was his wife’s funeral pyre scene. It’s a sweet scene, sure, when the whole family play music and sing a song for her but the song they play is an acoustic Guns N’ Rose’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” My long-lost love for GnR notwithstanding, it’s still a great song but I would’ve expected this wilderness family to pick something more in line with Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell than a now-lame hair metal band. They said it was the mother’s favorite song and she obviously didn’t grow up as a feral forest femme but still, pick a more poignant song to cap the film with!
My only other nitpick was the exclusion of the Brown Dirt Cowboy character! Maybe they are saving him for the sequel but I doubt it.
Overall: This is a fine film and should be added to your queues as soon as possible and watched. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was fun to watch from beginning to end with a fantastic cast playing fantastic colorful characters in a fantastic unique story. It’s too bad it will be mostly ignored but I’m here to tell you that you won’t be disappointed. Plus, you get to see Mortensen’s little Viggo in plain view. Can’t go wrong with that.
Score: 8 “Jesse Jackson ’88 T-shirts” (out of 10)