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Writer-director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, as well as being an emotionally affecting warm comedy drama (the type that often receive major critical buzz at Sundance – Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State), is a surprisingly timely film. It centres upon the idealistic Ben (Viggo Mortensen – Eastern Promises, The Road), a father who raises six children (Sunshine on Leith’s George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell – all wonderful) off-the-grid. He teaches his kids to hunt, home-schools them, has them listen to Bach and read classical literature. Upon receiving word that his wife (who was institutionalised for treatment of bi-polar disorder) has committed suicide, Ben and his family embark on a road-trip to make sure the wishes in her will are fulfilled. On the way, Ben’s parenting style conflicts with those who are close to him in the normal world, particularly his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), and the parents of Ben’s late wife (Ann Dowd and Frank Langella).
One’s enjoyment of the film will ultimately depend on how one reacts to Ben – the captain of the title (a nickname given by his wife). Matt Ross’ script, rather admirably, plays its cards close to its chest in regards to its central character. He is stubborn, imposing his views on the evilness of capitalist society onto his children (instead of Christmas, they celebrate Noam Chomsky day) while forcing them to hunt deer and rock-climb giant cliffs (something Langella’s character describes as child-abuse). He is, at times, cold, describing in a very matter-of-fact way to his youths, their mother’s suicide, believing kids should not be lied to. However, he is also loving, intelligent, warm, all while mourning his lost love. Ben is eventually established as a flawed but ultimately sympathetic protagonist but even then, when Frank Langella appears, the latter is simultaneously the antagonist and the voice of reason (all his complaints about Ben’s parenting are true). This ambiguity is a welcome change from the typical American cinema with clear-cut heroes and villains.
Viggo Mortensen as the lead is an ace piece of casting. The actor, who tends to add gravitas to even slighter movies (Two Faces of January, Everybody Has a Plan), is a master at internalising emotion, managing as Ben to be both cold and warm in the same scene, loving and cruel. He immerses the viewer entirely in his inner-conflict without hardly saying a word regarding his feelings. It’s his performance that keeps the film on course, even as it at times slips into mawkish sentimentality (a sing-song of Sweet Child O’ Mine, although beautifully performed, jars).
As well as an engrossing character study, Captain Fantastic succeeds as a culture clash comedy which raises oddly relevant questions. Ben lectures his children on the dangers of capitalism, arguing that people and corporations are given equal rights in modern America. The first thing the young children see on the motorway, leaving their North-West Pacific Wilderness (gorgeously realised by A Prophet’s DP Stephane Fontane) is a McDonalds. In arguably the most delightfully comic set-piece of the film, Ben visits his sister, introducing his children to hers for the first time. Ross portrays Harper’s kids as solely driven by promises of capitalist goods such as XBOX games and Nike shoes (Ben’s children hilariously believe their cousins are referring to the Greek god of victory).
The idea that society would be better if people retreated back to nature, abandoning their ties to modernity, isn’t entirely new. However, Captain Fantastic’s smart and humorous take on the theme is given a greater relevance being released in the run-up to the U.S Presidential race. An election, where it is worryingly possible that the winner will be the most capitalist entrepreneur possible. A man, whose policies completely chime with Ben’s critiques of the modern world.
Captain Fantastic opens in selected cinemas September 9th. Check out the trailer below.
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