Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella
Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his six children live in the wilderness of Washington State. Living in isolation in the woods, Ben educates his children by his own ideologies and teaches them to think critically, be physically fit and have no reliance on technology or indeed any capitalist or materialist values. However after the children’s mother dies, her father (Langella) forbids Ben from attending the funeral, he however decides to attend in order to grant the wishes as expressed in her will and his children experience the outside world for the first time.
Unfortunately we do live in an age when films almost have to pigeon hole themselves from the off so to attract an audience, as opposed to letting the audience make their own minds up. All blockbusters are loud, while all mainstream comedies or dramas have to follow a strict narrative structure. Depressingly, it does feel that even American independent films are having to have to use certain stylistic methods in terms of both how the film is made and its marketing so they can immediately shout as loud as possible “I am leftfield, independent film; come watch me if you fancy using your brain!”.
If this leads to more bums on seats for independent films then that can only be a good thing, but of course these films do still need the substance to go with the style, and there have been plenty of films recently that have tried to show themselves as indie films, but end up becoming rather mediocre and forgettable due to a total lack of substance. Well, Captain Fantastic certainly has all stylistic trademarks of a self-aware indie film (except perhaps the clever title that may lead to a few mainstream blockbuster fans seeing it), but also very much has the substance to go with it, and is for me one of the most emotionally engaging dramas of 2016.
Matt Ross’ film is a deeply intelligent film that takes on many pertinent ideas and themes that do truly linger in the subconscious after watching. Despite Ben’s ideologies essentially (often quite literally) driving the narrative throughout most of the film, Captain Fantastic never feels preachy or expects us to make a black or white judgement on these ideologies. Instead we are given a film that intelligently presents its character’s ideologies and the audience is entrusted to make their own judgements, which makes the film infinitely more rewarding.
For Captain Fantastic to work requires a superb leading performance; As having played Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen can probably afford to be fussy, but has recently often picked some interesting and challenging projects, and as Ben he delivers an exceptional performance that does truly elevate the film. He produces a performances of understated passion and he truly encompasses the role of Ben; he manages to avoid ever making it obvious, but every line of dialogue he says is delivered with a raw passion that makes us sympathise and engage with his character no matter how much we may disagree with his ideologies and particular lifestyle choices.
Many of Ben’s ideologies, and that which he teaches his children, are very much opposed to the ideologies of 21st century western society, but the film (as stated before) does not take a particular stance and expect the audience to follow suit, just simply presents them. These do produce many scenes which do question the supposed conventional western way of life, but only ever ask pertinent questions without ever preaching any answers.
More importantly, despite its slightly unconventional way of depicting them, Captain Fantastic is a film that explores very simple and relatable films such as a father trying to do what he believes is best for his children. What happens to the children’s mother is of course what ultimately drives the narrative, and though we get the occasional generic fish-out-of-water moments when the children have to mingle with society, both the gradual revelations regarding Ben’s relationship with the children’s mother and her relationship with the children provide the key emotional backbone of the narrative.
As the narrative develops and certain revelations are made, Matt Ross handles everything perfectly and maintains complete control of his film to ensure that these revelations remain understated and tonally consistent to produce a film that is emotionally satisfying on many levels. The key and relatable themes that tie the narrative together such as grief, loss and devotion to one’s family make sure that all characters remain sympathetic and engaging from start to finish, and their actions remain justified (even if we ultimately may not agree with them due to potentially differing ideologies).
Visually Matt Ross has also put together a film that is deeply cinematic; often mere facial expression and body language reveal the characters feelings, while Alex Somers’ beautiful and ethereal score only serves to enhance the film’s mood and the viewer’s emotional engagement. There are of course comedic moments, but these are delivered with suitable subtlety, and it is left to the audience to decide if these moments are actually comedic or slightly satirical (or indeed both). It is moments like this that prove how Captain Fantastic is one of the most emotionally engaging and rewarding films of 2016.
A film of intelligence, emotional engagement and substance in equal measure: Captain Fantastic may have an ultimately simple narrative, but within that narrative is a film with an abundance of philosophical ideas that will linger in the subconscious of the viewer for a very long time.