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Entries in Captain Fantastic [2016] (1)


Captain Fantastic (2016)

"Free" Isn't Freedom

In Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash a smarmy, condescending know-it-all who forces his six children to live off the grid because the world, as he sees it, is full of distractions and doomed idiots. He’s loud, preachy, and, worse yet, hypocritical: years ago, he convinced his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), to leave behind her high-powered-attorney job; reject her obscenely wealthy parents; and join him in the woods for some good, old-fashioned rock-climbing, deer-skinning, and hand-to-hand combat training. He’s a back-to-nature survivalist who fuels the family’s reclaimed school bus with evil, corporate gasoline and instructs his brood on the best shoplifting techniques. He refuses to let anyone under his authority eat hot dogs and other “non-food”—but proudly offers up a stolen chocolate cake, in observance of “Noam Chomsky Day”.

Early in the film, Leslie dies and Ben must drive the family cross-country to keep her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) from ignoring her will and holding a funeral. Culture shock abounds as the kids experience highways, restaurants, and extended family for the first time. While her phone-obsessed pre-teen cousins half-heartedly explain the Bill of Rights as some kind of consumer protection plan, seven-year-old Zaja (Shree Crooks) gives her earnest, in-depth opinion on its practical social impacts. Later, eldest son, Bo (George MacKay), poorly feigns pop-culture awareness while trying to impress a girl he meets at an RV park.

It’s easy to confuse the trappings of writer/director Matt Ross’ film with its message. The Cashes are awkward and inconsiderate in ways we normally associate with people who don’t associate with people. When Ben marches his inappropriately dressed family into Leslie’s funeral, the statement is neither cute nor powerful; it’s Ben’s obnoxious declaration that his perceived right to grieve via protest outweighs the right of everyone else in that church to mourn in peace. Instead of letting Ben off the hook, Ross spends the last act putting him (and our perception of him) to the spiritual flames.

As Ben shakily deals with an outside world he can’t control, the cracks in his family’s artificial world widen and splinter until we see that the shepherd is just as lost as his flock. What little info we’re given of Ben and Leslie’s previous life suggests that instead of running toward the freedom of disconnectedness from big, wicked America, they were running away from intimate and far scarier problems. This extreme reactiveness caught up with both adults far too late, and may have led to an extreme (and extremely illusory) proactivity: admitting to themselves, and to their children, that they didn’t have all the answers likely crippled their already fragile self-worth.

Ross’ depicts America as something to be kept at arm’s length. The family bus traveling out of the lush forest and onto congested highways, through business-crowded towns, and ever-present noise, reminded me of R. Crumb’s illustration, “A Short History of America”, which depicts society’s triumph over nature and nature’s eventual reclaiming of itself. The physically and mentally fit Cash clan stand out like sore thumbs in a society of sheep-eyed, overweight consumers, and I began to see the appeal of hunting by day and reading great literature by campfire at night—instead of, say, spending decades staring at a variety of screens and driving the same assembly-line route to and from work.

Ben’s in-laws, Jack and Abigail, offer him (and us) an alternative point of view, a middle-ground between consumerism and societal rejection that, at first glance, looks like a trite, calculated power play. Until we see Jack at the end of the film, we only hear his voice in tense phone conversations with Ben. He’s angry, he’s mean, he never got over Ben “stealing” his daughter and turning her into a hippie. In his first few on-screen scenes, Ross and Langella keep this image alive for us. Jack tries to turn the kids against Ben and even pursues legal action to become their rightful guardian. He’s wealthy and connected, and Ben soon finds himself without recourse.

Jack is the hidden key to this story because he embodies the balance that Ben so desperately needs. He has the desire and the means to keep his grandchildren safe, and ensure they’re provided for, but he also has no interest in molding them into something they’re not. We see him playing with them, laughing and falling down on the ground, being silly. Whereas Ben and Leslie raised people equipped only to deal with the aftermath of civilization, Jack understands that the best way to deal with the world is to confront it, head-on, and use one’s light, knowledge, and influence to be the change one wants to see.

I recently interviewed Ross about Captain Fantastic, and spent twenty minutes beforehand talking with fellow critic Patrick McDonald about the film’s bizarre climax. I won’t spoil the bigger picture of what happens here, but the highlights (?) include a robbery, a bonfire, and a sweet but weird Partridge Family-style rendition of Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”. Pat made a convincing argument that this entire problematic stretch was a dream sequence; he even picked out the spot where it began, and with whom. To our joint dismay, Ross said (post-interview) that the events were, in fact, not imagined. These scenes didn’t sour me on the film, but they didn’t seem like the best way to connect two very important thematic components, either.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried a lot during Captain Fantastic. Ross touches some primal nerves here (for me, at least), offering up an unflattering, unflinching, and nightmarish portrait of parenthood. On some level, I think all mothers and fathers worry about whether or not they’re equipped to guide anyone through life—especially when we, ourselves, are constantly changing, succeeding, and stumbling. When I see news reports of terror attacks in France or people falling off cliffs while playing Pokemon Go, my first instinct is, “That’s it! We’re moving to the mountains!” But that’s no way to live.

The best we can do is the best we can do. Sometimes that means swallowing our pride and realizing that we are part of the problem, as well as the spark of every solution.