Film Review: Captain Fantastic

A complicated portrait of a dictatorial father whose “radical” ideology becomes a vehicle for abuse in an idiosyncratic family.
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Feeling oddly dated, as if it were set in the late ’60s or early ’70s, Captain Fantastic is nonetheless a dead-on depiction of an authoritarian father gussied up as an intellectual free thinker (a terrific performance by Viggo Mortensen) and his abused children (ages 6-18) who can’t cut it in the real world, though they are conversant in Marx, Middlemarch and Yo-Yo Ma. Dad’s political motto is “Sticking it to the man,” and he celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas.

This is Ben Cash, a professor on sabbatical who, along with his countercultural wife Leslie (Trin Miller), has taken his kids deep into the forests of the Pacific Northwest to make it as survivalists. By the time the film begins, Leslie, suffering from a bipolar disorder, is hospitalized and no longer in the picture.

The opening sequence sets the tone. In a highly ritualized rite of passage, Ben’s oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) stalks and kills a deer, stabbing, slicing, and gouging out its insides, while the others, ceremonially covered with mud from head to toe, reverently watch his every move. The brutal, primal baptism is punctuated with Ben dipping his hand into the dead animal and smearing its blood across his son’s face.

Moments of disaffection notwithstanding, the youngsters are not unhappy. In fact, the Cash family is a cohesive and affectionate unit until it moves back into the world and is forced to confront the cost of living off the grid.

Mom has committed suicide and her parents are determined to give her a church funeral and gravesite burial, despite her life as a Buddhist and request to be buried in the Buddhist tradition—e.g., burnt on a pyre. Ben is equally determined to fulfill her wishes. The family piles into their ramshackle bus—it looks like housing for itinerant failed rockers—to travel to Phoenix, where she is slated to be buried.

Along the way, the Cashes pay a visit to Leslie’s sister and brother-in-law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn), who dislike Ben and are appalled at the way his children are being raised and home-schooled.

When Ben asks his two young nephews to describe the Bill of Rights, they have no idea what it’s about and can barely put two sentences together coherently. By contrast, his youngest son offers a mini-dissertation on the topic. He is also a little marionette who has learned to spew forth what his father wants to hear. The same is true for his brothers and sisters, who are frequently prodded by Dad to analyze and critique one heady topic or another. They are not allowed to be children.

Equally serious, they have no social skills and are a source of amusement to their cousins and other youngsters they encounter. They’re also unfamiliar with pop-culture references, including Nike sneakers and Star Trek. Not to split hairs, but, if nothing else, Dad would make sure they were well-versed in contemporary allusions, though undoubtedly couched in trendy and lofty terms.

Still, Ben is a complicated figure. He is uncompromising in his views, a classic narcissist and, paradoxically enough, a loving father. Compare him to Caleb Fang (Christopher Walken), the “progressive” patriarch in The Family Fang, who is as dogmatic in his “forward-thinking” ideas as Ben is in his, but unlike Ben, Caleb (a performance artist) exudes no warmth for his adult children. Both dads, mini-tyrants who exploit their kids in the name of creative or intellectual radicalism, are new types on screen.

Writer-director Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) hints at Ben’s duality in a brief and subtle interchange. Cash’s teenage daughter is reading Lolita and, true to form, Cash queries her on Nabokov’s themes. She says Humbert Humbert commits horrific acts, but she feels compassion for him.

Does Ross want the viewer to feel the same of Cash? Ben is no Humbert, but he can be unendurable. Morality is not his strong suit. In one episode, he’s leading his kids on a thievery spree through a mega-grocery store (“liberating the food”); in another, he’s pretending to be a fundamentalist minister with his born-again children. A justifiably suspicious state trooper wants to know what they’re about and, like a well-rehearsed improvisational team, the children abruptly burst into a hymn. Convinced of their legitimacy, the state trooper is satisfied and leaves, while the Cash family revels in its successful chicanery.

In the most sanctimonious expression of contempt for “the establishment,” the family—shaping itself into an isosceles triangle with Ben at its apex—bursts into the church where Leslie’s funeral service is being held. Ben rages against religion and his in-laws for violating his wife’s wishes. Leslie’s father, Jack (the always commanding Frank Langella), orders the security guards to forcibly remove the Cash family.

No one crosses Jack, a no-nonsense, super-wealthy pillar of the community who has the police chief on speed dial. He and his wife (Ann Dowd) want custody of their six grandchildren. (There are moments in the film that bring to mind Cédric Kahn’s Wild Life.)

Initially, the kids will have no part of it. Grandpa embodies everything they’ve been trained to despise, starting with his excessively large, environmentally unfriendly house planted in the middle of a golf course. How bourgeois can you get!

Still, the seeds of discontent have been sown. And then there’s the accident. Ben’s free-spirited daughter clambers up the roof of her grandparents’ house and predictably enough slips off, suffering a few broken bones and a concussion. From the outset, Ben has been training his kids to embrace high risk. For Ben, fearlessness is Mecca. (Again, shades of The Family Fang.)

For a while, it looks as if the kids will move in with Grandpa and that’s where the film should end. Suffice it to say the story closes on a sentimental note that lacks credibility and seems just alien in the film’s otherwise idiosyncratic universe. In light of what happens, Ben would end up in the slammer. That might have had some nice resonance too.

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