VOD Review: Captain Fantastic.
A flawed movie about flawed characters, Captain Fantastic does have some good performances.
Captain Fantastic is a movie in the same way that a protest march is a conversation. Both are really effective at making their positions known loudly and defiantly. Both are really ineffective at changing the minds of anyone not already on board. This film is a polemic against American consumerist, corporatist policies, and an indictment of our flaccid civil society. The problem is that is so self-righteous and one sided, it will put off those who would tend to agree with it, and it hasn’t enough other merits to entice those inclined to disagree with it to do anything other than press the eject button.
Captain Fantastic (2016)
Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) lives far from society in the Pacific Northwest, along with his six children. A liberal extremist with a powerful intellect, he drills his progeny in science, literature, physical fitness, and self sufficient living techniques. Along with his wife, Ellen, they left society, rejecting America’s consumer focused ethos. When Ellen succumbs to mental illness and kills herself, Ben must engage society again in the form of his in-laws, and struggle to keep his family together once they get a taste of the outside world.
One Sided Drubbing.
The major flaw with Captain Fantastic is that you can tell that it believes itself to be playing fair. We see Ben is a flawed character, especially since Viggo Mortensen does such a fantastic job of fleshing out the character and not hiding his problems. The problem is that his flaws are superficial and disengenuous. He’s just TOO righteous and smart for his own good. If only he weren’t so Fantastic, he’d probably be OK!
The Cash family is supernaturally talented. Children are drilled in String Theory, advanced literature, political theory, and higher mathematics, and they seem to absorb it all without much problem. As Ben says, they have the physiques of peak athletes, and they probably shit gold nuggets. Not that they believe in bourgeois concepts like material wealth. They win every argument against them just by existing. How can Ben’s methods be wrong when his Uber Mensch children walk the Earth?
Lacking the Courage of One’s Convictions.
Early, the “bad” child lashes out at Ben over his celebration of an imaginary holiday, Noam Chomsky day, instead of Christmas like everyone else. Ben calmly dares him to argue his side, and see who has the better argument. It’s clear that Ben believes that his ideas and methods are empirically the best possible. The movie tends to agree with him, since he is demonstrably more fit than the obese, X-Box addled straw men that they prop up for Ben to heroically hack to ribbons. If the Cash family is a ludicrous extreme of physical perfection, every one else is a degenerate pile of Doritos fueled slime mold.
It is a cheap line of attack. Ben can’t lose. His side is Greek gods, and his enemies are stumbling Morlocks. If the real message is that Ben is gifted and therefore arrogant and a bully, they really do a great job of showing that. But nope, the message is that Ben is a paragon who is perhaps a touch too extreme…but not exceedingly so. He gets a little chastened by his journey into the world, mostly because the world is not as fair and just as Ben, but he is ultimately vindicated.
The worst part is that Ben can’t back up his bluster. His father-in-law (Frank Langella, kind of wasted in such a small one-note role) basically puts the screws to him, arguing that he is in fact a terrible parent. And Ben…he just fumes, speechless, and then storms off, only to get his daughter hurt in a petty counter-attack. Where is your belief in superior ideas and reasoned arguments now!? If his father-in-law is such a flabby quisling, why can’t you easily destroy him with your intellect? Oh, because he calls the police. Only “The Man” can prop up the obviously inferior side against Ben. Get out of here with that special pleading!
Not Fit for Society.
Captain Fantastic has some strong moments. The family’s journey by bus to the funeral is pretty entertaining, like if Little Miss Sunshine was re-written by Karl Marx. Ben’s oldest son, Bo (George MacKay) is a wonderful actor in a well-rounded role. He alone challenges Ben, on the merits, and wins. He’s such a formidable genius, but also emotionally adolescent, he embodies the rightful charges against Ben. One scene I love had a “bad girl” from a trailer park watching Bo doing Yoga. He explains in detail the theory behind Yoga to her. She simply asks “so, does it work?” Bo says nothing.
That’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell. A towering philosophical argument is provided in detail, but when the tiniest challenge is uttered against it, there follows damning silence. I wanted to like the film because of the interesting premise and strong performances from Mortensen and MacKay, but there is not enough substance here, and what we do find is heavily stacked in favor of the Cash family and their philosophies.