This film’s title bears little resemblance to its narrative. Was the title a public relations decision? Ostensibly it refers to the main character, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), but there’s not much in his character that would merit the title.
Captain Fantastic (2016, dir. Matt Ross) depends on the pathos of the central situation. Ben, who is raising his children in the middle of the Colorado wilderness, learns that his wife has killed herself in the hospital where she has been under treatment for several months for depression. How often Ben goes to see her, or thinks about her there, isn’t clear. But early in the film one of the children asks when they will get to see their mother, and Ben answers that he’s going to call to find out. Is this a matter of a half-baked script, or are we being invited to see problems in the marriage, in Ben and his relationship with his wife, before the film brings them out clearly?
After Ben learns of his wife’s death, he gather’s the children together and tells them in straightforward, relatively emotionless terms that their mother is dead, that she has killed himself. The children start to cry. This is a gut-wrenching scene, painful and difficult to watch, and it quickly bonds the viewer to the children. Wherever else the film might go wrong, the children are its heart and keep it going.
The children clearly love their father, though the film hints that maybe one of them hasn’t drunk the cool aid as deeply as the others. What is equally clear is that they also fear him. When he issues a command, they are quick to obey. Ben and his wife Harper (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Hahn) retreated to the forest to raise their children so that they wouldn’t be tainted by American capitalism and popular culture. They’ve been home schooled and (unlike many home-schooled students) are extremely intelligent, articulate, and educated. Ben’s taught his children to be critical thinkers and independent spirits, and he’s proud of them. The children, who read and think and can talk intelligently, are not products of modern theories and methods of education, which underestimate and undervalue the abilities of young people, a point this film argues persuasively. However, Ben’s respect for the independence of his children extends only so far. When he learns that his oldest son has, without his knowledge, applied to the best colleges in the nation, and been accepted to all, his main reaction centers on the fact that his son went behind his back and deceived him. His son later tells him that he applied to college with the knowledge and cooperation of his mother, Ben’s wife. All of the children manifest their own forms of political radicalism, which is fine, though one increasingly suspects that if one of them began to express views that diverged significantly from Ben’s, there would be problems. He’s taught them survival skills as well, which include how to rob a store or to break and enter.
As much as anything, the film’s is about Ben’s gradual discovery of his own inconsistencies and blindness. His wife’s psychological problems in part are (we’re encouraged to think) the result of his rigidities, his failure to pay attention, to think carefully about her problems, to listen to her arguments about how life in the isolated wilderness may not perhaps be the best for their children or for her.
At the end of the film, the children and their father have made adjustments. They’re now living in a small house, they have cars, they’ve converted the school bus that was formerly their main means of transportation into a greenhouse. The children are attending school. But there are still questions—why does the oldest son decide to go to Namibia instead of one of the schools that accepted him?
The irony of this feel-good film is that it’s about a family trying to recover from the suicide of the mother and wife.
Frank Langella, as Ben’s outraged and angry father-in-law, is good.
All of that said, thank God Captain Fantastic didn’t center on super heroes, mercenaries, or mall-obsessed teeny boppers. The children in this film are about as real as it gets.
I am tempted to call this the last hippy film. Ben is fulfilling his back-to-nature hippy dream of living in the wilds, raising his own food, rearing his children righteously. That’s what I once wanted. But the film makes clear the injuries such a view in the post-modern world of western civilization can inflict. It also makes clear the kinds of outrageous compromises families in the United States have been willing to accept, without even conceiving of them as compromises.
Viggo Mortenson plays his role with stolid indifference. Maybe that’s his range. Indifference served him well as Aragorn in The Lord of the Ring trilogy and earlier films, some of them, at least, but in this one it didn’t work.