In this age of remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings, finding an original story on the big screen can be a hard ask. But if you find yourself craving something out-of-the-box; something that doesn’t feel like it’s been done a thousand times before, you should seek out Captain Fantastic.
The writer and director of this road movie with a difference is Matt Ross, who is perhaps better known as an actor. You may have seen him recently on the small screen in the likes of Silicon Valley or American Horror Story. Here however Ross gets to show he’s more than his on-screen roles by crafting a delicately observed, if unconventional, comedy-drama.
The title is a reference to Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father raising six kids on his own. That’s not the half of it though, because he’s raising them in a home-schooled, survivalist style environment deep in the woodlands of Washington State. Their day consists of hunting, rock climbing and arduous physical training; following by reading the classics and music class in the evening. The eldest, Bo (George MacKay) is his father’s pride and joy; but has been applying to universities without Ben’s knowledge. We soon learn this motley band are on their own because their mother Leslie (Trin Miller) is sick in hospital. Then Ben receives the fateful news that she has does. However, Leslie’s family – led by her father Jack (Frank Langella) – are planning to hold the funeral in faraway New Mexico in accordance with their (not Leslie’s) wishes. Worse, Jack warns Ben that he will be arrested if he shows up. This however only serves to make Ben and his brood all the more determined to go. So they pile into a former school bus (which they’ve dubbed “Steve”) and set out for New Mexico.
The film is primarily an exercise in cultural difference. What Ben and the kids find in “civilized” America is a shock to them; but the members of Leslie’s family find this “wild bunch” equally perplexing. The final scenes – which, it must be said, include some behaviour that’s troubling on several levels – provide a neat counterpoint to what’s gone on before. That said, Ross is careful not to overplay his hand. He makes sure that Ben isn’t painted as a saint and Jack isn’t a demon. Indeed, when Jack and Ben confront each other after an incident at Jack’s house, Jack’s point of view makes a lot of sense. The epilogue hints some of that may have sunk in.
The film was shot largely on location in Washington and New Mexico and DOP Stephane Fontaine (Rust and Bone) makes excellent use of the spectacularly contrasting landscapes. Composer Alex Somers’ restrained score underpins the on-screen action without being intrusive. Special mention should go also to casting director Jeanne McCarthy for assembling a cast who look like they really could all be related to one another.
Understandably, Viggo Mortensen is the backbone of the film as the worldly-wise Ben. Any current or aspiring actors out there should study his performance for its subtle intensity. There’s no scenery-chewing here, but his gradations of the shades of grey in his character is something to behold. The kids are all fine, with perhaps Samantha Isler standing out as the wise-beyond-her-years Keilyr. Steve Zahn and Kathryn Hahn have sizeable cameos as Leslie’s sister and brother-in-law; while Frank Langella lends his ever-reliable gravitas to the film as Jack.
With the (US) “summer” movie season coming to a close and the big awards hopefuls yet to hit our screens, Captain Fantastic gives audiences some much-needed relief from both. This is a small movie, for sure, and it definitely errs on the quirky side; but its perceptive observations on social norms and family dynamics makes it practically essential viewing.
Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn
Release Date: 8 September 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television