Captain Fantastic is less a film and more a commentary on the way any single person chooses to live their life in the modern world. It tries hard not to cast judgement on what is best, but instead reveals the flaws in whichever path we happen to choose; particularly with regard to raising a family.
This is a film where visual storytelling is king. The dialogue is minimal and efficient. The on-screen cues are all we need to read the context; the whys and the wherefores of any given moment. Nowhere is this better handled than the opening ten minutes, where we are introduced to the Cash family in a sequence which only contains a single line of dialogue, yet scores of tiny hints as to who they are and how they live. The family are hunting a deer, and we watch them work together with a scary precision, before returning to their camp. Here the camera weaves around each of the children, showing us the books they have read, the weapons they use, the few comforts they have been afforded, and the closeness between them. It’s reminiscent of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, not in content of course, but in the way it wordlessly brings us completely into the world of the protagonists with an assured hand, allowing us to fill in the gaps for ourselves.
Viggo Mortensen (on incredible form) plays Ben Cash, a father who has chosen to raise his brood of 6 children in the wilderness. He, and his wife, believe strongly that a suburban way of life leads to corrupt, capitalist minds whose only care is for material goods over genuine knowledge and any kind of quest for enlightenment. His children are free spirited, even a little feral, but each has a wick mind. Thanks to the bookish teachings of Ben, they are more learned than kids twice their age.
This freedom is interrupted when the family are forced to go to New Mexico, where they encounter ‘regular’ folks whose kids are all about the iPads and Xbox. These suburbanites hide truths from each other and their kids in the name of a ‘normal’ life, Ben Cash does not. So begins the clash of cultures and the aforementioned social commentary.
Writer/Director Matt Ross does his best to play it even handedly, identifying the massive flaws in each way of life. Perhaps he’s too even handed. Because after 2 hours it can be difficult to discern whether a point is being made at all. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone realises where their shortcomings lie. I suppose that’s all that can be said at the end of the day. Where we raise families we make mistakes. Perhaps the overriding lesson (one learnt by Mortensen’s Ben eventually) is that if we commit blindly and single mindedly to an extreme way of life; one that refuses to let any element that doesn’t quite ‘fit’ be part of, then we will always be headed for disaster. Nobody knows the true and definitive ‘best way’ of living life, so we all just need to chill the hell out. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, we’re just lost souls swimming in a fish bowl. So why not go with the flow rather than trying to constantly battle the current?
Not that I’ll spoil it here, but what really lets Captain Fantastic down is its last 30 minutes. After spending three quarters of its running time feeling authentic and semi-grounded, it goes a little too far. It takes liberties with the reality of the situation. It also chucks in an acoustic version of a Guns n Roses song which, instead of feeling heartfelt, comes across cringey. Until this final section I had Captain Fantastic pegged as a potential Top 10 entry for the end of the year, but with how oddly it finishes, and how long the eye rolling ending is drawn out, it lets itself down.
If ‘chill the hell out’ really was the lesson of the film, then perhaps the filmmakers could have followed suit and let the credits roll a little earlier. As it stands Captain Fantastic is a generally very good, thought provoking piece of cinema.