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Fraught existence of a fantastic family

  • 08 September 2016


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.

In 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