-Co-written by Tom Bostock.
A father raising his herd of children outside the confines of modern civilisation is the type of Utopian-hipster fantasy that even Rousseau would roll his eyes at. Still, Matt Ross (Silicon Valley) does put in place elements that could amount to a great film – it is just a shame he fails to make use of most of them. Whilst trying to create a balanced critique which could truly force his audience into dilemma after undecided dilemma, all that Ross achieves is to lose the nuance of his arguments, despite the best efforts of his accomplished ensemble cast.
[Please note, the rest of this article contains spoilers.]
Ben (Viggo Mortenson), the cult-like patriarch of this eccentric brood, is certainly not wrong in his critique of modernity. He’s not particularly original (see Harrison Ford’s opening scene in the 1986 Mosquito Coast), but he isn’t wrong either. For an insightful critique of modern metropolitan society (or, though unlikely from Hollywood, a critique of left-wing liberalism), greater emphasis needs to be placed on the character’s motivations, rather than simply a focus on their actions. It doesn’t really matter that Ben is leading his family in cinematically beautiful path away from the metropolis – in order for us to derive meaning from the movie, we need to know why.
Attempts at drawing out motivations are cumbersome; annoyingly, Ross fails to effectively tackle the issues the film raises other than through pithy, one-liners. Perhaps comedic, the only purpose this actually serves is to make the film live up to the sanctimonious stereotype films of this nature bear. The family’s exaggerated left-wing tendencies are laughable. If this is a comment of the tendencies of intellectual types to be left-leaning, this is largely lost through the fervent quoting of Marx, the childish dismissal of religion and the idolatry of left-wing figures such as Chomsky in its place. This fails to provide anything other than proof that the family, through indoctrination or doctrine, is committed to a life in the woods. It fails to be a wrenching examination of how their and our own lives are being, and should be, lived: it fails to compel the viewer to want to adopt such a lifestyle themselves or retreat further into metropolitan comforts.
The concerns of the children’s grandparents are more understandable, if only because they are taken from a more familiar perspective. The film is admirable in its attempts to alienate us from our metropolitan views and then crashing us back into them with the foil of the gruff grandfather, Jack (Frank Langella) and the meeker grandmother, Abigail (Ann Dowd). Nevertheless, these are just attempts at a profundity which Ross has struggled to portray. See, for example, when Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) breaks his arm rock climbing, an injury later dramatically declared to be child abuse. There could be a semblance of shock here – that a part of the lifestyle we had admired and accepted as desirable when seeing it from the eyes of those within it is exactly that kind of lifestyle we condemn when viewed from the outside. Not the most imaginative of points to make, but even so, one which is ruined by Ben’s uncompromising, compassionless, disturbing and ultimately abusive attitude when the break takes place. Watching Ben force his son to continue climbing up mountain, and then run through a freezing storm makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. Instead of a moral grey area and the shock of different world views clashing (what this film is ostensibly about), we find ourselves wholeheartedly agreeing with the claim that yes, this is child abuse.
Unused potential overwhelmingly shines through in Captain Fantastic. Ross entirely fails to grapple with the factors that led to the mother’s suicide, instead choosing to apparently resolve the issue by having the seemingly rebellious Rellian and his father simply apologise to one other. He reduces a complex issue surrounding mental health, modernity, psychiatry and morality into a feel-good message about family first. There is also a slight nod at the hypocrisy of Ben’s own values, he advocates a lifestyle led by rational debate, yet is both dictatorial in his opposition to any conflicting perspectives and hypocritical in his oppressiveness. The depth of Mortensen’s acting is entirely wasted on this superficial narrative.
Alternatively, consider the film’s take on education. It attempts to make a very valid point about the disadvantages and the narrow constraints of an overly standardised and lacklustre American education system. The contrasts between eight-year-old Zaja’s (Shree Crooks) knowledge and passion surrounding the Bill of Rights and teenagers Justin and Jackson’s (Elijah Stevenson and Teddy Van Ea, respectively) complete ignorance of it, is amusing and touching, if again, self-righteous. Another instance is Ben and his daughter Keilyr’s (Samantha Isler) discussion regarding Nobokov’s Lolita. It is a brief glance at the nuanced film Ross could have made; not by taking a simple didactic approach but a genuine attempt at true discourse.
Captain Fantastic, then, fails to make the positive case for living away from the metropolis. It fully fails to provide a negative one, too. Its portrayal of the evils of urban life are hackneyed and cliché: a rant about the (undefined) terrors of shopping malls; a family which doesn’t respect the more left of field but innocent requests in their daughter’s will; the main metropolitan characters appearing mainly in suits. One scene does excellently portray the huge health issue with city life, the children wondering why everyone is simply so fat. But again, it undermines itself, by displaying the astonishing (and much played upon) lack of social skills of the children who declare that fully in public.
We ought not forget to give the film its dues however. There is searing critique of their extended family where, despite being older, the children are treated like infants, allowed to only care about their video games. Some of the metaphors are (mildly) clever, for example, the use of a readers’ inability to decide where to lay their sympathies in Lolita with the movie’s attempt to similarly confuse viewers’ sympathies between metropolitan and nomadic life. Given the limits of the plot, the acting is undoubtedly supreme, particularly given the ages of the child stars.
But the film ultimately fails at what it is trying to do. We don’t feel torn from our usual point of view into sympathising with the wish to live outside of society, and so we don’t feel any sort of conflict when we see the bland compromise reached at the end of it all. We are left with the tempered down, upper middle-class, organic-food shopping, liberal version of The Mosquito Coast, which, despite all its flaws, at least has more bite to it.
In fact, Captain Fantastic shares a lot of obvious similarities to its less PC predecessor. Both feature a cult-like family, led by their stubborn, hypocritical, authoritarian father, convinced of his righteousness against a modern, consumerist society; both also have an obedient eldest son who’s god-like reverence of his father slowly erodes as he comes of age, as well as the more emotionally (and sexually) developed teenage girl who helps bring about this development; the two also share a more defiant and outspoken, younger son; an inevitable, eventual disaster which snuffs out any hippy dreams; as well as an irritatingly on-the-nose soundtrack.
Captain Fantastic tries and fails to provide an engaging critique of civilisation, modernity and metropolis, despite the material being evident in its concept. It doesn’t necessarily provide answers, nor is it ultimately that though-provoking, but if you are looking for a feel-good flick that is relatively easy to watch and won’t confront your own conventional lifestyles too greatly, you won’t go too far wrong.
This article was also published in Anchor Magazine.
-Written in response to the prompt: Mind the Gap