Hot Take: Viggo Mortensen is fantastic in this twisted family drama with a polarizing plot and thought-provoking story.
Captain Fantastic has a rather scrupulous plot about a family headed by Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who lives in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest. Ben is focused on turning his six children into book smart, athletic survivalists who can do everything from recite the U.S. Constitution (and debate its merits) to set a broken bone. Ben’s wife has bipolar disorder which is what brought the family to the forest years ago in the first place but early in the first act, while receiving treatment at a hospital, she kills herself. Against her wishes, her parents decide to give her a traditional Christian burial (despite the fact she is now a Buddhist) and her father (Frank Langella) bans Ben and her children from the funeral.
Eventually, Ben ignores the ultimatum and takes his children on a road trip to New Mexico to “save” his wife from having her last requests ignored. As the family treks across the U.S. in Steve (that’s the name of their bus), the children realize the outside world brings some new challenges that all the survivalist training in the world can’t prepare them for. Ben is also faced with the challenge of looking in the mirror at his parenting and ask if he’s bringing up his children the right way.
This is where the film becomes polarizing. Open minded audience members will enjoy the thought provoking unfolding of events. The twists and turns are moderately unexpected (although the film slips in and out of conventionalism) and there are a lot of gray areas the film dives into head first. There will be some completely turned off by the smugness of the family and Ben’s philosophy. However, those people should have watched the trailer and realized straight away that this movie wasn’t for them. It is part hippie fantasy after all.
Personally, Captain Fantastic is currently in my top 20 of 2016. It might not finish there at the end of the year but I loved Mortensen’s performance and there are moments of comedy, delight, anguish and pain. It’s an emotional roller coaster at times and it makes you think about whether or not the way Ben chose to raise his family was right and, even more, would he have chosen that path if it weren’t to help his mentally ill wife cope with her illness? It’s interesting to ponder how the selfless act of dedicating your life to your children’s physical, philosophical and education upbringing can actually come from the pure selfishness of trying to save your wife from herself. There will be those who think Ben is a hero and others who think he’s a fraud. Getting to that level of thinking on a movie (especially a mid-summer release) is always a delight. While it’s sometimes great to be able to mindlessly munch away on popcorn while some big budget director blows stuff up real good for our entertainment, the special movies are the ones that make you realize half your soda remains because you were so engrossed in what is unfolding on screen. There are times when Captain Fantastic is that movie, though my popcorn was empty and only ice remained in my drink.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
2016 hasn’t been a strong year for lead actors. At this point, Mortensen’s turn as Ben might be the best of the year. The character he portrays could easily become cartoonish but he’s perfect for the role and delivers one of the better performances (if not the best) of his career.
- Wrestling With Right
Throughout the film, you wrestle with the idea of what is right and often find yourself finding value in both sides of the issue. Gray is the dominant color as not all is black and white.
- Good Grief
The portrayals of grief in this film feel authentic. There’s an especially selfish aspect of grief that is well documented in this movie as each character deals with grief in their own way despite the impact of those around them.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Too Extreme?
The clothing optional home life is one thing but the rock climbing expedition Ben takes his family on which seems to be a regular occurrence as part of their “training” but also feels ridiculously over the top.