Captain Fantastic full movie review - Captain Fantastic: When Worlds Collide
Ben Cash and his six children live in a world beyond time, beyond modernity, beyond common American ideals.
In the extended opening shot, we soar leisurely above towering evergreens. This lush green landscape is unmarked by man: the kind of place Sierra Club members dream of hiking.
We sail lower, settling on an intimate closeup of a deer munching leaves. The idyllic scene is shattered when a knife-wielding killer leaps upon the deer, subdues the panicked animal and swiftly slashes its throat.
The killer, we now see, is a young man smeared with mud like a third-world tribesman, panting beside the bloody tableau.
Out of the woods, six other mud-smeared humans of various sizes emerge and circle the deer-slayer and the deer. The elder male administers a kind of communion commemorating the death of this boy and the birth of the man he has become. In lieu of a communion wafer, he offers the young man with the deer's liver to eat.
Thus we are introduced to the Cash clan and their world. This first major motion picture from actor-writer-director Matt Ross stakes out fresh story-telling territory and has won early praise that may foreshadow future Oscars.
Ben Cash, the father (Viggo Mortensen, in a thoughtful, restrained performance) teaches a home-schooling curriculum like no other, based on "healthy mind, healthy body" and administered with a healthy dose of survivalist knowledge and anti-consumerism.
The children's day consists of reading and study time, balanced by a rigorous physical fitness regime that includes climbing, fighting, running and strength training.
He tutors his unplugged brood with books and dialogue, requiring them to not simply read and recite, but to comprehend and communicate their own thoughts about the books he assigns them, largely from the literature of left-wing thought.
Every opinion is on the table for discourse and communal votes. So, although Ben Cash is father and mentor, he is no dictator. He is developing "philosopher kings," not subjects.
The clan hunt and gather what they eat. For money, they make wooden bird houses and other products. They sew their own clothes from animal skins. They have no cell phones or TVs. They exercise by climbing, fighting, running and doing strength training. Consumption is bad, self-reliance is good.
Ben tells the truth. Eight-year-old Nai (Charlie Shotwell) asks what sexual intercourse is, and Ben answers with a mechanistic explanation that leaves Nai wondering why a man would want to do that. Ben explains that it is pleasurable and creates babies. Later, on the family-created holiday, Noam Chomsky Day, Ben gives Nai a copy of "The Joy of Sex" as a little joke. The real gift is a super-cool 7" hunting knife.
The children are all thrilled to receive serious knives, fit for serious survival. But it becomes increasingly obvious that survival in the larger world requires more than woodsman skills.
If only the family could live in the woods forever. But these young philosopher kings are bound to encounter modern culture in all its garish superficiality. Eighteen-year-old Bodevan (George MacKay), the eldest, wishes to attend a good college. How will that work, he wonders, when all he knows is from books, and none from living in the modern world? MacKay's performance perfectly captures the both the manly confidence of the survivalist woodsman and the timorous uncertainty of a stranger in a world he simply can't comprehend.
The Cashes are driven into modern-day America by the suicide of Leslie (in flashbacks, Trin Miller), the children's mother. Finally receiving treatment in a facility for long-term bipolar disorder, she was unable to fight her mental illness any longer. The arrangements for a Christian funeral by her rich father, Jack, played with smooth stolidness by Frank Langella, enrage Ben, since his Buddhist wife had specifically requested a cremation and toilet-flushing of her ashes in her Last Will and Testament.
Stubbornly, Ben devises a plan to steal her body and carry out Leslie's final wishes. So the family sets out for civilization aboard Steve, their adapted school bus, to carry out the corpse kidnapping plan. On the way, in a travel trailer campsite, Bodevan has a squirmy humorous encounter with an average American girl which ends in humiliation and shame, and he blows up at Ben.
A dinner at the home of Leslie's sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), flares into a screaming attack on Ben after he tells her two boys the stark truth: Their aunt didn't "die from her disease," she killed herself. When Harper angrily challenges Ben's tutorial methods, Ben administers a pop quiz on the Bill of Rights to her two sluggish, Xbox-addicted preteen boys, then to a much younger Cash child. The Cash kid leaves the young louts in the intellectual dust. Point made.
The struggle of wills between husband and father over Leslie's funeral ratchets up when a couple of the children are injured in physical challenges, and Jack threatens to take the children away from Ben. The injuries, and Leslie's suicide, raise Ben's doubts as to whether he had done the right thing after all by bringing the family to the wilderness. The corpse-stealing plan turns out to be ill-advised, pitting him against an equally stubborn man with far greater resources. Not to give the rest of the story away, I'll just say that in the end, the resilience of the Cash clan prevails.
The questions this film raises are not deep, but at a time when many question the capitalistic foundation upon which America is built, it is intriguing to see what plays out when that foundation is seriously questioned, and none of the answers are definitive.
In "Captain Fantastic," a family lives either an idyllic life or a dangerous fantasy. Perhaps both. This film gives you food for thought, as well as entertainment for an afternoon, and it is a most satisfying meal.