Profuse apologies for not dipping into Matt Ross‘s Captain Fantastic (Bleecker Street, 7.8) before today. For this is one of the most complex and provocative dramas about parenting and passed-along values that I’ve seen in a dog’s age. I didn’t love it because it unfolds in such an exotic and woolly realm (I don’t hold with killing deer or living without deodorant or Aqua Velva) and because the last 10 or 12 minutes seem more fanciful than grounded, but I admired it. I certainly found it intriguing. It warrrants a thumbs-up.
Ross’s fascinating scheme is to acquaint us with an unorthodox good guy like Viggo Mortensen‘s Ben Cash — a brilliant, willful, Noam Chomsky-worshipping father of six, an Allie Fox type who’s highly independent, disciplined and obstinate. And then show us that he can also be a selfish prick and even a tyrant. But one who also has the decency to recognize his faults and the humility to pull back when life has told him to do so. But he’s still bull-headed. But he cares. He even shaves his beard off at the end.
With his wife in failing health, Ben and his six kids — three older teens named Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielry (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso), the tweener-aged Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) and Zaja (Shree Crooks) and a little towhead named Nai (Charlie Shotwell) — have been living for ten years like survivalists in a Pacific Northwest forest, hand-to-mouthing it like Swiss Family Robinson, killing game and growing vegetables while immersing themselves in martial-arts training, Esperanto lessons and campfire sing-alongs.
Ben has rigorously home-schooled them all, and the kids know their shit better than an average high-schooler in a typical middle-class community, as an Act Two scene makes clear.
What about social skills, the necessity of having to make their own way, to get along with society in some kind of workable, civil fashion when they get older? Ben figures the kids don’t need society, but that’s obviously an egoistic view. To those outside the Cash realm, what Ben has been doing could be regarded as a form of abuse. By forcing his kids to live like discerning, book-reading, knife-wielding, guitar-strumming wolves, he’s made them into warriors as well as social misfits. And yet each kid is strong and resourceful and sharp as a knife. None has ever sipped a can of soda (i.e. “poison water”) in their lives.
The story is about how Ben’s scheme breaks down when society intervenes. The news comes that Leslie (Trin Miller), Ben’s wife and mother of the six, has killed herself, and so they all pile into a bus and head for her funeral in New Mexico. This despite warnings from the kid’s grumpy grandad (Frank Langella) that he’ll have Ben arrested if he shows up, largely because he feels Ben is harming the kids tremendously. As you might expect, shit happens. Bodevan wants to go to college (he’s actually been accepted at five or six top ivy-league universities), Rellian has turned against Ben and wants to live with gramps, and one of the older girls (I forget which one) injures herself in a home-invasion attempt.
As noted, the last portion don’t work but we’ll let that go because the very last scene — a family dinner with little said but much conveyed — definitely does.
Ben and the kids decide to give their deceased mother/wife a funeral pyre send-off, but the fire doesn’t seem big enough. You don’t want a half-burned body on your hands. You want only ashes and a few blackened bones left over, if that.
Honestly? If it’s a choice between listening again to Elton John‘s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown-Dirt Cowboy” on my headphones and re-watching Captain Fantastic on Amazon streaming, I’d have to say that Elton John wins by a nose. But that doesn’t mean Ross’s film isn’t thoughtful, highly watchable, nicely crafted. It is that. I respect it. I just didn’t care for the last 10 to 12 minutes — call it the last 15.