In a cinematic landscape where nearly every mainstream film is a remake, reboot, re-imagining or sequel, or an adaptation or true-life story, independent cinema constantly comes to the rescue, creating fascinating and original stories. One such film is Captain Fantastic, one of the most bizarrely wonderful little films I’ve seen in a while, and proof that independent cinema is the saviour we need, but don’t deserve.
Captain Fantastic is about Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), a man raising his six children in the wilderness, teaching them survival skills and feeding them on a steady diet of secular philosophy, classic literature and world culture. When Ben’s mentally ill wife Leslie commits suicide, he and his children attempt to re-enter normal society, and Ben has to force himself to grow as a person while still relying on the belief that what he is doing is superior to what every other parent is doing – the question the story poses is whether or not Ben is raising his children right, and once the film ends, there isn’t any resolution to that question. However, talking about parenting is not exactly my specialty.
Independent cinema harbours two very different kinds of performances – breakout performances from unknown actors, and unique performances from well-known actors that aren’t always known as movie stars. Captain Fantastic contains the latter in the form of Viggo Mortensen. Despite being the core of one of the most famous film franchises in history (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where one could argue he was the heart and soul of the entire trilogy), Mortensen has never truly been a very big star, which is bizarre considering that he is one of the more uniquely talented actors working today. Both with incredible range, endless charisma and a unique appearance, he is a wonderful actor that has put forward some extraordinary performances. Captain Fantastic offers Mortensen the chance to show off his talent in a leading role, and its honestly refreshing to see such a great actor get such an extraordinary role – and this role, while it may not be Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes, was the chance for any actor to be challenged and stretched beyond his usual capabilities. Mortensen just happened to be the fortunate one to get the role.
Despite the role being that of a lifetime, Mortensen elevates the material more than it should.
This film is so good, even a mediocre performance would’ve made it a special film. It just so happens that Mortensen gave this his all – he creates a portrayal that is frustratingly charismatic – we both despise and adore Ben Cash, almost always at the exact same time. He is a hippie, who remains closed-minded and set in his own beliefs. He listens to no one, not even his own children, and most of all, for a man so obsessed with being progressive, he is unusually stubborn. These qualities are all present in Mortensen’s performance, yet he is just so good at making Ben such an interesting character, we forget that the protagonist of this film is a pretty terrible person, perhaps not in personality (he has nothing but good intentions), but rather in his actions, which are not meant to hurt anyone, but rather alienates him from those around him, particularly his own children. Mortensen gives perhaps my favourite male performance of the year, along with Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash and the cast of Everybody Wants Some!! It is truly an extraordinary performance.
Not only is Captain Fantastic anchored by an incredible leading performance from Mortensen, the ensemble is also exceptional. The children are all wonderful, and I recall mentioning how the problem with films with large ensembles composed of children (such as The Sound of Music), they serve as plot devices rather than characters, and rather that becoming individual characters, they are a homogenous entity, there to just drive the plot forward. Captain Fantastic has a cast of six children in major roles – and each of them have special moments, and are developed fully. George MacKay is incredible as the conflicted oldest son, looking so desperately for meaning in a world he has grown up as an outsider from. Nicholas Hamilton is wonderful as the angry Rellian, who fights against his fathers’ wishes. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso have wonderful moments as the older daughters, and shine in their own small moments. Shree Crooks is a wonderful young actress, and gives a very sweet performance. Charlie Shotwell steals the film as Nai, who I was very surprised to discover was actually a boy – and judging from other online reactions, others thought the character was a girl as well – which I don’t quite think is attributed to our own ignorance, but rather as a statement towards the progressive nature of this film, that we put labels on things and people, when in the end, we are all just hope-filled souls, floating around, looking for meaning and a place of belonging. Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella and Ann Dowd all have wonderful moments as Ben’s family, each of them alienated and isolated from him, while still attempting to help his children build a future.
Captain Fantastic has a beautiful story, and an incredible script. Filled with deeper meaning and wonderful imagery, and philosophical discussion to make any thinker laugh and smile, it is one of the more meaningful scripts to be made into a film. I thought it was a wonderful film with such a lovely message, and the deeper meaning is so true and resonates with me as someone who always looks to find some subtle discussion of the purpose of life in even the most mundane films. Captain Fantastic may not be the most riveting film (despite being marketed as a comedy, it isn’t at all funny, even though it does have a sense of its own irony, and the characters are often very outlandish, both in terms of appearance and personality), but it is still a wonderful film that I am sure will resonate with many, many people.
I think Captain Fantastic is one of my favourite films of the year. Fresh, exciting and original, it is well-written, has a splendid cast giving wonderful performances, particularly the incredible leading performance from Mortensen. It may not excite many people, but it will make you feel something unique. There is a hidden meaning in this film, and once you realize what it is, you’ll think long and hard, and come out of this somewhat changed. I won’t mention what that meaning is for two primary reasons – the first is that I obviously don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and also, I think the meaning of this film is different for everyone, and its an inherently personal one. However, if the climax of this film doesn’t send chills down your spine and a tear down your cheek, then I doubt you’re fully human. Captain Fantastic – has there ever been a more apt title for a film, because quite frankly, this film is nothing if it isn’t simply fantastic.