What are we supposed to make of Ben Cash, the protagonist of “Captain Fantastic”? And what does the movie, the second by the actor Matt Ross, want from us? Both questions – and a few others besides – remained unresolved as I watched this film, which raises more incredulity than interest.
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Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), are raising their six children in a forest. In addition to teaching them how to hunt (the movie opens with a hunting scene that’s a rite of passage for Ben’s eldest son, Bodevan), Ben puts them through training exercises as though they were in boot camp.
Ben and Leslie – though mainly Ben, it seems – have taught their children the U.S. Constitution and other formative documents of American history. They’ve also made them read literary masterpieces and plied them with Marxist and Maoist theories.
Ben’s idol is Noam Chomsky, whose writings he and the children can declaim by heart. Instead of celebrating Christmas, the family celebrates Chomsky’s birthday. Is this supposed to strike us humorously, ironically or admiringly? It’s an open question.
Whatever you may think about raising children in this manner, Ben comes across as a tyrant in the movie. Yet Ross wants us to like him, maybe even admire him. More precisely, the film doesn’t know what to do with this character, a lacuna that generates a large dramatic and conceptual vacuum. We might regard Ben and Leslie as hippies, but that notion is too outdated for its connotations to be relevant today – I would rather forgo it and its romantic implications in the context of “Captain Fantastic.”
Ben and Leslie have given each of their children a singular name: names that no one else in the world is likely to have. (This is presumably their infantile conception of individualism; we get names such as Kielyr, Vespyr and Rellian, in addition to Bodevan, or Bo.) More strikingly, all the children, and particularly the younger ones, behave like little robots that recite the theories their father makes them learn by rote when required to do so. We’re supposed to be amazed at this – or maybe not. I personally found Ben’s treatment of his children to be abusive, but I have no idea whether the movie also sees it like this.
That not everything is dreary in the forest where the family lives is shown by the fact that Bo (played by British actor George MacKay) was accepted by all the most prestigious universities in the United States, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. His highly unusual education has apparently turned him into a genius. However, he applied to those institutions behind his father’s back and concealed his acceptance to them from him. Twelve-year-old Rellian (Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton) also tries to rebel against his father at one point, but Ben, whose calm tone of voice is a type of aggression, is able to suppress every attempt to revolt against his exclusive authority.
Caution: spoilers ahead
The person who’s missing in the forest is Leslie, whom we see only in photographs and flashbacks. Leslie, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is institutionalized and, shortly after the start of the film, commits suicide. Her wealthy, conservative father, Jack (Frank Langella), who has severed all contact with his daughter and her family, forbids Ben and his children from attending the funeral. But there’s a problem. Leslie’s father wants to bury her in a traditional religious ceremony. In her will, though, Leslie asked to be cremated and for her ashes to be flushed down the toilet. Ben is determined to carry out Leslie’s last wish and, in spite of his father-in-law’s warning, sets out in an old school bus with his children, in order to prevent the ceremony that Leslie’s father is planning.
On the way, they stop at the home of Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), and her family: her husband, Dave (Steve Zahn), and their two children. Their life is the exact opposite of Ben’s. (The children watch television! The children do not know the U.S. Bill of Rights by heart!) This family, which is perhaps treated with ironic criticism as the representative of a staid bourgeois life, looks a lot saner than the family around which the film revolves.
From there, Ben and his children proceed to his father-in-law’s estate. We expect to meet a monster, but instead we get a man who receives his son-in-law and grandchildren coolly but politely. His notion that it would be better for the grandchildren to live with him sounds eminently reasonable. He continues to insist that his daughter receive a standard burial, but Ben will not relent. It’s here that the movie reaches its final peak, which is pure off-the-wall kitsch, lacking any reasonable conceptual validity. And that’s putting it mildly.
Throughout, it’s unclear what “Captain Fantastic” is trying to tell us, still less what it’s trying to say. Compounding the situation is the presence of Mortensen, whose charismatic aura makes us respond to the character he plays, even though we don’t know why – thus leaving us at a loss to critique the film’s ideas.
Ross seemingly tried to make an ideologically complex picture that is fraught with conceptual and emotional ambivalence; to depict and even celebrate a lifestyle that is meant to be an alternative to the hollow materialism that dominates our world. But the result is so nebulous that we feel we are drifting in ambiguity, undergoing an experience whose substance is mere vagueness.
Captain Fantastic. Written and directed by Matt Ross; with Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Nicholas Hamilton, Trin Miller, Annalise Basso, Samantha Isler, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zah.