Fraught existence of a fantastic family

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Captain Fantastic (M). Director: Matt Ross. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George McKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd. 119 minutes

A young man, shirtless and caked in mud, stalks and kills a deer. An older man — his father — arrives and silently cuts out the beast's heart. He hands it to his son, who stoically takes a bite. The young man's younger siblings watch on, awed.

Later, this family — bearded father and six children — sits around a campfire, reading books. The father, the teacher, watches over them, occasionally quizzing them. Their responses are almost preternaturally sophisticated for ones so young.

Eventually, the father, Ben (Mortensen), rises, enters a nearby hut, and returns with a guitar. As he begins to play, his children, one by one, put down their books and retrieve instruments of their own. They join in the improvised performance, with no audience but themselves and the surrounding woods.

Don't mistake this for an idyll. Incongruently, the youngest child has built a bone shrine to Pol Pot. The father oversees a rigorous physical exercise regime; later he will boast that they have the fitness levels of elite athletes. Yet during a rock climbing expedition, Ben is unsympathetic when one of them injures himself, insisting the boy draw on his personal resources to extricate himself from very real peril.

Annalise Basso, Samantha Isler,  George McKay and Viggo Mortensen in Captain FantasticIn short the portrait that filmmaker Matt Ross paints of this strange family and its ascetic lifestyle is far from romantic. It reflects a complex belief system held by Ben and imparted to his children.

  

"Watching the children celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday with religious cult-like fervour, or eldest son Bo discover while in the real world the possibility of romance with hilariously exaggerated ineptness, are cause for laughter laced with consternation."

 

Their robust philosophical conversations reveal a rejection of capitalist, materialist western norms. The rigour of their commitment is admirable. At the same time, there are destructive implications.

This tension, shown but largely unspoken, is dragged into the open when a personal tragedy lures the family out of isolation, back to the world that they have — or at least Ben has — wilfully shunned.

His father-in-law (Langella) — who is wealthy and thus epitomises everything that Ben reviles — describes the life that Ben has built for his children as child abuse. Even as we marvel at those children, at the profound intellect and creativity and physical prowess that Ben has nourished in them, we can at least partly sympathise with that description. Such is the complexity of the portrayal.

The film is both thoughtful, dense with ideas, but also entertaining, funny, and with an immense emotional punch. Watching the children celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday with religious cult-like fervour, or eldest son Bo (MacKay) discover while in the real world the possibility of romance with hilariously exaggerated ineptness, are cause for laughter laced with consternation.

Shifting and testing our sympathies, and eliciting such nuanced emotional responses, Captain Fantastic is endlessly captivating. With the exception of a couple of credulity-stretching plot points late in the film, it is a tour-de-force of writing, directing, and especially performance, with Mortensen leading the way in a cast of actors who realise the depths of their characters' complex inner lives.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross, Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks for this review Tim - your words "endlessly captivating" is so true about this film, as is "dense with ideas". A theme that really appealed to me in the film was its portrayal of what is real and actually happening, as distinct from what we may like to tell ourselves and others is happening. For instance meat-eaters (of which I am one) are confronted with the violence done to animals to achieve the 'sanitised', beautifully presented meat on the supermarket shelves. Suicide, an increasingly prevalent form of death in our societies these days is spoken about 'uneuphemistically' so we are left in no doubt about the emotional and physically realities. This realism theme leads the viewer into a constant grappling with the question: how real should parents be with their children about life generally, and particularly its tough aspects. The film challenges much conventional thinking about what can be spoken about with children e,g. death, sex, suicide, philosophy, politics and religion. The film takes a swipe at Protestant fundamentalism in the US, which of course is a sitting duck. Unfortunately it tends to throw out the baby with the bath water here, favouring Eastern religious practices.
Rex Graham | 08 September 2016


We found it unsubtle: in-your-face in the American way. Things taken to extremes, crude confrontation rather than contrast, no possibility of resolution. It reminded me of Avatar in that respect. There are good themes that could have been explored - good living versus consumerism - but instead we got boot camp versus capitalism. The angry Dad was in rebellion, and the only possibility was his capitulation, because there was no life for the kids, no community for them to grow up in and into. He did have his crisis and resolve some of his personal stuff, so at least that was constructive. But where is the lesson for the surrounding society - go and live in the forest? And I prefer the subtlety and complexity of the Taoist yin-yang view to Plato's absolutism. Ben was all body and intellect, with little heart and compassion.
Geoff Davies | 09 September 2016


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