These days, it somtimes feels like it’s impossible to find a film that doesn’t try to drown you in special effects and just focuses on telling a genuinely good story. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a decent film scene, it is still possible to find that endangered species known as a semi-original film. Fortunately for me, the Syracuse International Film Festival was running this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of seeing Captain Fantastic.
Viggo Mortensen delivers a truly (wait for it) fantastic performance as Ben, a radical who has raised his children in the wild, teaching them how to be self-sufficient and politically radical. However, he soon learns that his wife, who has been suffering from bioplar disorder, has committed suicide and that his in-laws are refusing to honor her wish to be cremated. This precipitates a journey of father and family to civilization, where they have to decide whether to continue on with their way of life or make the switch back to the consumerist world they have left.
Certainly, the dominant strand of the film’s narrative asks us to sympathize with Ben, at least up to a point. All of the points that he makes about the essential corruption and emptiness of contemporary American culture are made manifest when father and company pay a visit to his thoroughly middle-class sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her equally doofy husband Dave (Steve Zahn). They, and their incredibly ignorant and obnoxious sons, are the epitome of everything that the family has steadfastly rejected. Thoroughly immersed in their consumerist world, the sons know nothing of (to take just one example), the Bill of Rights, while Harper and Dave can’t even bring themselves to be honest with their teenage sons about the real cause of their aunt’s death. Their lives are as empty and fatuous as Ben claims, and it’s hard not to see the life he has created for his children as infinitely preferable.
However, Ben is no saint. He can be stubbornly unwilling to budge, and the film contains hints that it is this intrasigence, this inability to see beyond the limits of his own experience and beliefs that may have contributed (however indirectly) to his wife’s death. His father-in-law Jack represents the stolid, traditionally wealthy masculinity, a stifling and demanding atmosphere that, we are led to believe, may have contributed to his daughter’s flight from civilization, while Harper and Dave stand in for the bankrupt emptiness of modern parenting.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on these things), the film ultimately seems to come down somewhere in the middle. The final sequence shows the family has finally settled down on a peaceful farm, where the children have both the stability they need yet also continue to practice the arts of self-reliance. The last frame may be held just a fraction of a second too long, but it is precisely this protracted stillness that gives it its resonance, allowing us to see that they have at last managed to attain a measure of balance between the competing impulses of their lives. To this viewer, it felt like something of an extended allegory of the abrupt uprising of the American Left during the 2016 election, which has ultimately had to settle for a thoroughly moderate candidate who, all things considered, probably preferable to the alternative(s).
While Mortensen deserves a great deal of the credit for the success of the film, no small amount is also due to the supporting cast, both the adults (Frank Langella is particularly unpleasant as Jack), as well as all of the children, each whom brings something unique to the mix. Their responses to their father’s way of life range from celebratory to condemnatory, and each of the young cast brings something unique to the mix. Captain Fantastic is one of those rare (VERY rare, IMO) films that actually manages to make the younger members of the cast as essential as the older ones.
All in all, Captain Fantastic is a true gem of a film, in large part because it doesn’t have grand aspirations. It wants to tell a strong, compelling story, and that’s what it does. In today’s blockbuster world, that is no small accomplishment.