Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises his children under a strict survivalist patriarchy in the woods. They wear caked mud as camouflage to stalk and hunt game. They train in knife combat. At night they read books on quantum mechanics and high literature. It is an extreme form of home schooling, in a way, if home was a forest and school taught you how to skin a deer.
Ben is trying, but he is a loving father. The family’s life appears serene in its isolation and in spite of nature’s harshness, but, like the ever-pressing power of globalization, the outside world is destined to creep in.
Captain Fantastic strives to be as intelligent as the beatnik recluses that it depicts on screen. It accomplishes this in majestic shots of man within nature, as the shot of a waterfall cascading down on the patriarch’s head, nature pushing him away just as he needs to embrace it the most.
And pushed out he is. With the death of his wife, the family ventures out in order to give her the burial she would have appreciated, but the civilized world threatens to pull his family away from him in the process.
A script that could come across as pedantic—and at times does—is balanced by a story of perseverance and family that is just original enough as to not feel burdened by the inevitable conventions that befall it. The family essentially a time capsule from the 1970s counter-culture movement, the strange Americana that comes forth as a result is entrancing and somehow not alienating.
Perhaps the reason for this is Mortensen. His character’s brutal honesty is cause for both humor and trouble. It is a character trait that could be played caricaturish and over-amplified, but Mortensen elevates it to a level that is utterly powerful.
The film as a whole, however, does suffer at times from an imbalance of tone, oscillating too quickly from light to heavy. This only hampers the film mildly, but it is strongly evident in certain scenes. The film’s juxtaposition of counter-culture to mainstream culture gets repetitive at times, as well.
Alongside Mortensen is a handful of child actors who all do exceptionally well. In particular, George MacKay, who plays the eldest son in the family, has what should be a breakout performance.
Captain Fantastic, even with its tonal shortcomings, is a very human case study of moving against the grain. Armed with a career high performance by Mortensen, the film is a near tour de force journey into the human spirit.
It also scolded me for my overuse of the non-word “interesting,” and it’s always good when a movie keeps me in check.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)