Captain Fantastic is the third “people in the woods” movie I’ve seen in the last few weeks, following the ambitious and bonkers Swiss Army Man and the superb Hunt for the Wilderpeople I really enjoyed both of those movies, but I did not enjoy Captain Fantastic very much. Written and directed by Matt Ross (Silicon Valley’s Gavin Belson), Fantastic is about an eccentric father confronted with reality after living in supposedly idyllic isolation with his children. It’s the least-good of the “people in the woods” trilogy I’ve just seen, and also, this movie is like being forced to listen to someone extol the virtues of their kid’s hippy-dippy alternative school for two hours straight. It’s pretty f*cking insufferable.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben, a father living in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with his six children. They’re all precocious and talented artist-survivalists, and they have names like Kielyr, Vespyr, and Rellian. Ben is on his own with his kids because his wife has been institutionalized, and then he learns that she has killed herself, prompting Ben and his kids to board their magical school bus and journey to New Mexico for the funeral. This brings the real world crashing into the kids’ experimental childhood, and then it spends all its time smugly justifying Ben’s cultish methodology without ever sincerely questioning it.
You can’t fault the acting—Mortensen is as good as he always is, intense and passionate and compelling as Ben. Frank Langella and Ann Dowd are excellent as the in-laws, exactly the kind of bourgeois capitalists Ben disdains, and all the child actors are engaging. And the movie looks great, lensed by Stéphane Fontaine (Rust and Bone, A Prophet). No, the problems with Captain Fantastic are all rhetorical. Ben is supposed to be a counter-culture hero, challenging the norms and making us reconsider if our stuff-and-things obsessed lifestyles are really good for The Children. But really Ben’s just an asshole.
He goes around saying things like he’s raising his kids to be “philosopher-kings”—if a small rock flew in from off-camera and hit him in the head whenever he said sh*t like that, Captain Fantastic would be brilliant—but the kids, whenever called upon to demonstrate their learned intellects, prove to just be exceptionally well-trained parrots. It reminds a bit of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, in which parents also raise their kids in isolation, but Dogtooth realizes that’s a cruel thing to do to children, and plays that cruelty out to its absurd, darkest end. Captain Fantastic wants to be a feel good movie about a father socially crippling his children.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some good points made. I’m not sh*tting on the idea of alternative education, in and of itself. But the way it’s presented via Ben is an all-or-nothing proposition in which his kids learn by repeating whatever he tells them and reading only the books he provides, and are so sheltered they don’t understand why some people are fat. And Ben is not at all supportive of his kids wanting to experience the outside world for themselves—his eldest, Bodevan (George MacKay, Pride), has been accepted to Ivy League colleges, but is afraid his father will shun him if he attends. It’s less like Ben is raising “philosopher-kings” and more like he’s managing his family as a cult.
The entire movie begs the question of what happens if Ben and his kids just stay in the woods. He says mainstream American life is so terrible, but is a life of isolation so much better? Who will these kids mate with? What future does Ben actually envision for his kids? Captain Fantastic is too black and white to really answer any of these questions. And the characters who challenge Ben’s authority are ultimately won over by his kids’ robotic ability to repeat rote information and sing-a-longs. Captain Fantastic wants to be a heart-warming look at an unusual family unit that extols the virtues of self-reliance, but instead it’s a creepy case study of how a domineering father controls and limits his children.
(Thanks to a suggestion from Raine, we will now be including trailers at the end of reviews.)
Attached - Viggo on Jimmy Kimmel last night.