(photo credit: PR)
Matt Ross, a gifted actor best known for his role as the conflicted, closeted homosexual son of a fundamentalist prophet in the series Big Love, has made an offbeat, compelling film, Captain Fantastic.
It stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben, a left-wing hyper-intellectual, survivalist father who is raising his six children very far off the grid.
They live in total isolation in the woods, kill the animals and grow the vegetables they eat, train in hand-to-hand combat and challenging rock climbing and are home-schooled at an extraordinarily high level. The only holiday this family celebrates is Noam Chomsky’s birthday.
The plot gets going when Ben learns that his beloved wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), has committed suicide. She suffered from bipolar disorder and had psychotic episodes, and Ben had reluctantly agreed to allow her to be treated at a mental-health facility. Telling his children the devastating news, he takes them on a road trip to her funeral, where they plan to take her body and cremate it, according to her wishes and the Buddhist ritual she believed in.
Along the way, as the family confronts the mainstream American society from which Ben has shielded them, they all have their convictions and assumptions challenged, and nothing goes as planned. Ben loves the children and they love him and each other, but he faces the eternal counterculture parent’s dilemma of how to handle them when they rebel by becoming more conventional.
In the scene that most clearly illustrates Ben’s point of view, he gets into an argument with his late wife’s sister-in-law, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), when he and his brood are visiting her family on the way to the funeral. He quizzes her sons, who are glued to their phones and video games, on what the Bill of Rights is, and they don’t have a clue. His own eight-year-old has the Bill of Rights memorized and can discuss it like an academic. “You made your point,” says his sister-in-law.
But Ben’s carefully constructed world begins to come apart in ways that make his character more interesting and more sympathetic.
It’s hard to know at first (and throughout the film to a certain degree) how we are meant to respond to Ben. Is he a noble savage, a man of ideas, a paranoid megalomaniac – or a little of all three? Ben clearly displays great arrogance and a lack of empathy for the difficulties that his children may face because of the isolation in which they have been raised. When they pass through a trailer park, his 18-year-old son Bo (George MacKay) is smitten with a blond teenage girl. After he goes for a walk with her, he asks her to marry him, saying he will love her forever.
She and her mother laugh off his proposal, but he is crushed.
How plausible is any of this? Not very. But if you can suspend your disbelief, you will find a story that has suspense and some moving moments. Mortensen, a distractingly handsome actor who seemed destined for superstardom when he starred in The Lord of the Rings franchise, has chosen to appear mostly in indie movies in recent years. Few of these films were widely seen, partly because several were not in English, with the polyglot actor performing in Spanish and Danish. But his intensity and presence are unmatched by any other actor working today, and this is a perfect part for him.
Frank Langella, who plays his father-in-law, gives an understated, effective performance. It’s no surprise that Ross, who is currently appearing in Silicon Valley, works well with his actors.
There are some graphic scenes of the children killing the animals they hunt which may disturb some, and a gratuitous nude scene with Mortensen, who (if you’re interested in that sort of thing) looks even more fit than he did in the shower scene in Eastern Promises. He is certainly credible as a man who spends much of his time working out.
Captain Fantastic is a highly engrossing story of an unusual (and exasperating) man and family that raises some interesting questions.
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