Equally convincing as a man of action and of intellect, Viggo Mortensen is perfectly cast as the protagonist of the superb Captain Fantastic, the second film by actor turned writer-director Matt Ross.
A combination of rugged outdoorsman and libertarian thinker, Ben Cash is raising his six children off the grid in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Yet Ben is no common-or-garden survivalist. In his exceptionally rigorous version of home schooling, lessons in rock climbing and self-defence go hand in hand with instruction in philosophy and quantum physics. As a result, his brood are equally adept at butchering a deer and dissecting the US Constitution. They have the bodies of triathletes and the minds of philosophers.
When the film opens, Ben’s wife Leslie is absent: the first indication of possible strains in Ben’s utopian idyll. She is being treated in hospital for bipolar disorder and her illness is the spur for a road trip that takes the clan across the country to New Mexico and a prickly showdown with Leslie’s wealthy, disapproving father (an imperious Frank Langella).
The culture-clash comedy that ensues en route is hugely entertaining. Ben’s children know Karl Marx and Dostoevsky from cover to cover, but they are clueless when it comes to reading the wider world.
‘Are they sick?’
‘Are they sick?’ questions one of Ben’s kids on seeing the customers in a diner. ‘Everyone’s so fat. Fat like hippos.’
Eight-year-old Zaja (Shree Crooks) runs intellectual rings around her surly teenage cousins, the sons of Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn), by expatiating on the US Bill of Rights.
Eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) deflects the attentions of a suspicious traffic cop, who has stopped the family’s converted school bus, by pretending they are a bunch of happy-clappy Jesus freaks.
In reality, Ben has as much contempt for organised religion as he does for capitalism. In consequence, they celebrate Noam Chomsky Day, not Christmas.
All this is great fun. But the film does much more than score points off straight society. His screenplay informed by a childhood spent in hippy communes, Ross is much more nuanced than that. As admirable as Ben is in many ways, it’s clear he is also dogmatic and unyielding, inflexibly convinced of the verity and virtue of his chosen way of life.
‘Redemptive rather than tragic’
In this regard he has more than a little in common with Harrison Ford’s idealistic father in The Mosquito Coast, whose half visionary, half crazed utopian idyll ended in disaster. We notice the resemblance and we fear for the future of Ben and his family. We sense that things might end badly.
The stresses underlying the family’s lifestyle are apparent in MacKay’s socially awkward Bodevan and in his rebellious younger brother Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton). Yet the film’s abiding mood is redemptive rather than tragic. What strikes us about the children – superbly played by MacKay, Hamilton and Crooks, and by Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso and Charlie Shotwell – is their vibrant energy and immense curiosity. Yes, Mortensen’s Ben is flawed, yet he is the fount of these qualities.
In the end, Ross, his creator, is more of an optimist than a pessimist, and he is far keener to cheer his protagonist’s merits than he is to point out his shortcomings.
Certificate 15. Runtime 119 mins. Director Matt Ross