Most movies about adventures into the wilderness center around the themes of getting in touch with one’s primal instincts or returning to some sense of balance with nature. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is not most movies, though.
Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash raises his family of six children to live in harmony with the environment to an extent, but this is far from the traditional feral child model. They live in somewhat of a liberal arts experiment taken to a logical extreme where, removed from the supposed silliness of socially constructed rules and traditions, Ben can provide the kids with an environment of pure rationality and intelligence in which to develop. We’re talking people who celebrate Noam Chomsky Day over Christmas, people.
Ben’s ascetic cult of authenticity, cast as a utopia, may well be a vision of the world in a not-too-distant future should the slow march of progress continue in its current direction. While “Captain Fantastic” does often assume the posture of defending the inherent virtues of the idea, Ross hardly lets Ben off easy. What Ben might envision as a microcosm of a perfectible society also looks a lot like a more rustic version of the ivory tower mentality. A portion of America has let their rationality drive them into enclaves of self-selected intellectual peers, where cognitive gifts fan the flames of their own egos rather than stoking necessary social change.
Mortensen’s performance comes to embody the tough realization of the film. As he confronts the passing of his wife and the grief of his family, Ben’s plain-spoken literalism creates more problems than it solves. Years in the wilderness indoctrinating his children with the intelligence of textbooks has left him blinded to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in the wake of tragedy. Despite some real quirks in his character, Mortensen keeps an impressively even keel as he slowly comes to realize the impracticality of many principles to which he has dedicated his life.
“Captain Fantastic” does not implode Ben’s self-confidence all at once. The film erodes it gradually to devastating effect. Ross favors slowly peeling off the band-aid that covers decades of resentment, equivocation and hurt. The process stings for everyone involved, characters and audience. But expression is ultimately more valuable than repression, and something tells me that Ben could find a philosopher to cite in regards to why that is so. B+ /