Captain Fantastic: Viggo Mortensen Shines as Eccentric Patriarch (Father Knows Best) in Family Tale of Nature Vs. Civilization

Bleecker Films will release Captain Fantastic on July 8 in a platform mode


A highlight of the 2016 Sundance Film Fest (shown in the Premiere section), Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is the only movie from that prestigious venue to be invited to the Cannes Film Fest this year; usually there are two or three Sundance titles across the various sidebars.

Over the past two decades, almost any movie starring the vastly talented Viggo Mortensen was independent in spirit, original in vision, offbeat—and a tough sell for a distributor aiming to reach a broader audience.

(The exceptions may be the two films that Mortensen made for Canadian director David Cronenberg, Histroy of Violence, an artistic and commercial success, and Eastern Promises, acclaimed by critics and Mortensen’s only Best Actor Oscar nomination, but a very moderate performer at the box-office.

A handsome, photogenic, intelligent, multi-lingual actor, Mortensen has simply refused to be typecast in specific kinds of genres and roles. He has also resisted, for whatever reason, to become a Hollywood movie star, or even bankable player, even though he had all the ingredients for that position back in the 1990s.

With all my strong feeling for Viggo in Captain Fantastic, I doubt that it would change his stature in the industry.

Captain Fantastic is Matt Ross’s second feature (28 Hotel Rooms was his debut), and he may be better known as an actor, which may explains the high-caliber performances he has coaxed of his entire ensemble.  As a thesp, Ross has appeared in Big Love, Silicon Valley and American Horror Story.

Mortensen is suitably cast as Ben Cash, an idiosyncratic (to say the least) father, a “sensitive patriarch,” who is defined by contradictions and ambiguities that are manifest in his values system and actual conduct, especially in the kind of education (and skills) that he transmits to his children.

Mortensen, sorting long blond hair and bushy beard plays Ben as a self-styled Super dad (a supremely secure ideological guru, an ultra-modern Father Knows Best), who doesn’t seem to understand–or fully realize–the consequences of his rigid authoritarian mode on the mental welfare and future of his children.


captain_fantastic_3_MortensenThematically, Captain Fantastic deals with the issue of Nature versus Civilization, which is the running motif of John Boorman’s work, as well as a topic dealt with, with different degrees of success, in Peter Weir’s  The Mosquito Coast (with Harrison Ford in the lead), or Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (with Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti as the parents, and River Phoenix as their rebellious teenager).

Committed to the counter-culture, Ben doesn’t believe in celebrating “bourgeois” holidays like Christmas, and abide by strictures of materialistic capitalism.  The tale raises the intriguing issues of whether or not it is possible to drop out of (quit) society and live a wilder natural life, and if so, at what price.  Is it possible to cut off one’s connection to any social structure? And what about efforts to re-assimilate into mainstream culture, when the conditions call for it

Early on, Leslie, the wife-mother, commits suicide, which Ben finds out about only days later because he has no access to telephone. As a result, he is left with the burden and responsibility–but also joys of control–of raising six ultra-bright children, each endowed with his own distinctive personality.

Set in the Washington forests, the tales revolves around all kinds of rituals (rites of passage, as Anthropologists say).  Ben’s eldest son (in his twenties), Bodevan (George MacKay) goes through a  hunting ceremony: wearing greasepaint camouflage, he proudly slaughters a deer. Then there are Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), the rebellious son, Zaza (Shree Crooks), the middle, and the beautiful teen daughters, Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso).

“Your mother is dead,” Ben tells his children directly and matter-of-factly, as if all of them, even the young ones, were sufficiently mature to process the news and cope with the traumatic situation.


Endowed with complex personality, Ben reveals another facet when he visits the aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn), whose  sons represent more typical contemporary youths (they’re obsessed with IPhones). Ben’s children know nothing of popular culture icons, but they are well versed in the Constitution and Karl Marx theory.

As children of nature and products of a peculiar and selective home education by their dad, they have considerable wilderness survival skills, self defense, rock climbing, sex, and human reproduction.

The kinds of gifts that the kids receive from their father are telling. Several get hunting knives, while the youngest, who’s only 5 0r 6, gets the popular book, “The Joys of Sex.” Speaking of literature, Ben’s daughter has decided to read–and then analyze–Nabokov’s scandalous “Lolita.”

For collective recreation, at night, the clan reads Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or sing, with Ben handling his guitar.  He also encourages his family to celebrate Noam Chomsky Day?  (Now, how many people know who is Chomsky, the celebrated professor and intellectual? The family members represent a close-knit community, living an utopian life, with minimal interference from the outside world.

It’s indicative of this and other similar movies that, at a certain point, the leader and/or his children realize the problems inherent in such lifestyle, but don’t know how to proceed.  And the same can be said about the scenario, whose first half is much stronger than the second.  As writer, Ross doesn’t know how to end such a saga, ad admittedly tough (even impossible) task.

Though heartfelt and intelligent, ultimately, the movie is uneven, likely to divide critics.  Even so, Captain Fantastic deserves to be seen for the intriguing questions that it raises (family values, the meaning of being father), for Ross’ progress as original filmmaker, and especially for Mortensen’s fantastic performance, which makes his character more likeable, compelling, and touching than it has the right to be–or that it must have been on paper.