Why Can't Noam Chomsky Day Be a Real Thing? A 'Captain Fantastic' Film Review
by Will Lindus
One of the hallmarks of a great film is its ability to present a character who we root for even if we disagree with their fundamental ideals. Such is almost the case with Captain Fantastic, a film which does a phenomenal job of setting up an intriguing, underdog protagonist at odds with society, but which flounders in establishing meaningful consequences for his curious actions.
Deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has chosen to isolate himself from the pressures of society, raising his six children via a routine consisting of intense physical and mental training. Ben is a modern day hippy who eschews the trappings of capitalism, preferring to live ‘off the grid’ and teach his children how to hunt, how to grow their own food, and how to question authority. The family bucks against the norm, celebrating philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky's birthday as a holiday instead of traditional religious holidays. When a personal crisis forces Ben and his children to re-enter the world at large, he is forced to choose between independence and conformity, between personal responsibility and capitalism, between sheltering his children and pushing them to unlock their potential.
Captain Fantastic wrestles with these themes in a mostly satisfactory manner; by all accounts, Ben should be considered an awful parent by most movie-goers because of the physical danger he places his children in regularly. However, Mortensen plays the role with a sincerity that makes us root for him, even when it might be against our better judgement. Even the most staunch authoritarian will find themselves buying Ben’s credo, ‘Fight the power! Down with the man!’
Unfortunately, the third act falls apart as the stakes begin to rise. Without divulging details, Ben is forced to make some hard decisions, ones which question his entire worldview. The film consistently chooses the easy way out of the situations Ben finds himself in, making the entire journey he and his family goes through feel kind of pointless. Which is a shame, because with a tighter, more decisive ending, this could have been a film truly deserving of its fantastic title.
I would be remiss in my duties, this being a film blog aimed towards gay men and their admirers, if I didn’t call attention to the fact that this film features glorious full frontal nudity from Viggo Mortensen. Call me crass, call me base, but goddamn, this shot alone is worth the price of admission. I could easily write another hundred words in adoration of Viggo Mortensen’s fully nude body, and I’m tempted to do exactly that. But alas, I suppose I should stop objectifying the star of this film and return to the more earnest, if perhaps less titillating, part of the review.
Viggo Mortensen turns in an outstanding performance, a believable one that opts for nuance over extremes. This is the type of character that could easily succumb to excessive quirk, and while there are certainly weird comedic beats that Viggo deftly plays for laughs, he never does so at the expense of the character. The same holds true for the six children. In a lesser film, the children would have come across as pretentious and obnoxious, but the film wisely allows the children to give their ‘know-it-all’ answers without coming across as smug. Of special note is Bo, played by George McKay (Pride, For Those in Peril), the oldest of the children. His struggle to find his identity as an adult, to choose between staying with his family and furthering his education at an ivy league college, adds another layer of intrigue to this fascinating family dynamic.
Captain Fantastic is a gorgeous film, with long tracking shots that feel like the could have been ripped from a travelogue video, or perhaps even from the Instagram feed of that one friend who uses filters to showcase all of her vacation photos. The result is breathtaking, and adds texture that complements the film’s tone which shifts dramatically, sometimes dark, sometimes comedic, sometimes sweet, and sometimes bitter.
Director and writer Matt Ross only has one other feature under his belt (28 Hotel Rooms), with a background more steeped in acting roles. Recently, he has played Gavin in HBO’s Silicon Valley and appears as a series regular on American Horror Story. His experience as an actor shows in the script, which becomes an actor’s showcase for Viggo Mortensen and supporting cast members Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn, Missi Pyle, and Frank Langella. Captain Fantastic has a lot of heart, and Matt Ross is certainly a talent to keep an eye on.
Bottom line: Captain Fantastic doesn’t quite deliver on all of its promises, and a waffling third act hampers the emotional impact and catharsis that the filmmakers are aiming for. This doesn’t make it a bad film; no, Captain Fantastic offers beautiful visuals, strong performances, and a balanced view of conflicting ideologies. It is certainly a fine watch, even if the ending leaves a bit to be desired.
3.5 out of 5 Bear Paws