Matt Ross has made a good career for himself on the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, as tech CEO Gavin Belson. Now he takes to the big screen for his fourth film as a director and by far his most well-known of his films so far in Captain Fantastic. Ross not only directed but wrote the movie as well, and deserves credit for making much of the film work as well as bringing together a wonderful acting ensemble of many ages. The film follows an unusual premise as Ben Cash, played by Viggo Mortensen, leads his six children in “training” deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest to survive in the wilderness, become child-geniuses, and to have the same disdain for American capitalism that drove him and his wife Leslie to leave civilization.
The training that Ben gives his children involves engaging in daily physical exercise like one-on-one combat with sticks taking the place of knives or climbing the face of rock cliffs. At night they gather around a camp fire and read ever more elaborate books to allow the children to grow their minds, learn new facts, and, when tasked, to analyze and examine in novel ways or else receive Ben’s fatherly contempt. They’re scorned for using words like “interesting” and their fellow siblings join in to do so. They are given a somewhat contrasting pair of roles as both analytical scholars and at time bloodthirsty hunters and outdoors-people. The film opens with Ben’s eldest son Bodevan or “Bo” killing a deer for sport and being deemed a man by his father with its blood. The ethereal green of the forest is broken by the violence and the noise of the people that inhabit it. Soon enough, however, they’re called back to civilization and they’re forced to confront many things that they were taught to hate.
Their antics outside of the woods form the most engaging, humorous, and thought-provoking parts of the movie. When pulled over by a police officer for a busted taillight, the children sing Christian songs around him in a circle until he leaves. Ben fakes a heart attack in a supermarket for “Operation Free the Food” to hide from his kids the fact that they are stealing. When they go to eat he declares it “Noam Chomsky Day” and gives them all real weapons like bows and arrows or machetes. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole movie comes when they get to a funeral, Ben dressed in a red suit and his children in earthy clothing, and Ben interrupts the funeral and offends just about everyone there. There’s another wonderful scene where Ben is confronted by his sister-in-law Harper about the state of his children’s education, only to make a point by having his eight year-old son recite the Bill of Rights while Harper’s two sons, years older, can barely remember what it is. These moments when Ben and his children are drawn in direct contrast to American sensibilities and things that we would consider “obvious” come under fire that the film succeeds in making some excellent points.
Also worthy of note is the quality of acting in the film, especially among the six children, played by George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Cooks, and Charlie Shotwell. All are given creative names by Ben and Leslie because they don’t want their kids to be normal in any sense. Ross’ screenplay is also quite good, fully delving into Ben’s character in a way that left me thinking long after the film was over. Ross is willing to go as far as he needs to make his points and he has a great performance by Mortensen as Ben to do so. Ben is willing to go to great lengths as a character to defend his view of the world and what he has done with his kids. His father-in-law Jack, played well by Frank Langella, provides the best foil to Ben later in the film.
Where my gripes with the movie come in are at the beginning and towards the end. The movie is slow to start with awkward character introductions, a grueling pace, and the sense that I didn’t care much about the family until they got out of the forest. As I mentioned above the ideas that the films explores are good for contemplation. However, when the film comes to its end, some of Ross’ decisions completely reverse any character development that might have happened while also failing to make any real ideological statement or discernible messages. Such an ending isn’t really necessary but that’s what the story seems to build towards. The film’s last twenty minutes feel like they’re trying to combine Little Miss Sunshine with a more stoic melodrama. It may work for others but it feels confused and rushed to me, with too much muddle for my taste. Like the beginning of the film the ending limps to the finish line. Also, while Ben’s character is given plenty of emotional depth, his children aren’t so much and his eldest son Bo feels like his scenes alone are there because they have to be.
Captain Fantastic when looked at from a distance looks like its trying to be a couple of different films, with the humor and character working best in the film’s middle 60-70%. The film’s opening and ending drag quite a bit and when the end does come it feels unrewarding. That being said, what comes before offers a very good Viggo Mortensen performance, interesting ideas and characters, and a wonderful acting ensemble from the Cash siblings. The film is a solid step forward for Ross as a director, and certainly as a writer. But what’s there feels like it may be one draft away from being a great movie and I found that frustrating.