Captain Fantastic review – thrilling and poignant

Viggo Mortensen leads an outstanding cast as a grizzled rural eccentric who hits the road with his brood of home-schooled, off-grid children

The actor turned writer-director Matt Ross insists his appropriation of an Elton John album title for his second feature was “subconscious” and entirely accidental. Yet as I watched this strange and wonderful tale of an isolated family living a back-to-nature existence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, fragments of Bernie Taupin’s sublime lyrics from the 1975 title track of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy kept drifting through my mind – from the disdain for “cheap easy meals” to the rejection of organised religion (“all this talk of Jesus coming back to see us”) and the assurance that “from here on sonny, it’s a long and lonely climb”.

Most notably, as the off-the-grid lifestyle he has fashioned for his family starts to come apart at the seams, the question posed at the end of one verse prefigures the central dilemma facing Viggo Mortensen’s paterfamilias Ben Cash: “Should I make my way out of my home in the woods?”

We open with George MacKay’s mud-covered Bodevan “Bo” Cash (“our names are unique; there’s only one of us in the whole world…”) tracking and killing a deer, prompting his father, the Bear Grylls-like Ben, to announce: “Today the boy is dead, and in his place is a man.” Bo is one of six brothers and sisters, aged seven to 18, who have been raised to fend, fight, and think for themselves in these woods. By day they hunt for food and scale rocky cliffs; at night they read The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch, while earnestly discussing Marxism and Noam Chomsky. It’s meant to be a paradise born of Plato’s Republic, but did this crazy life soothe or exacerbate the bipolar disorder that afflicted their now absent mother, and for which various family members blame Ben?

From its Lord of the Flies opening to the hints of Manson-family madness (knife-obsessed kids led by a wild-eyed beardy charismatic man), Ross’s grand adventure injects a note of darkness into its Edenic setting. Like his younger brother Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, channelling River Phoenix in Stand By Me), Bo dreams of escaping into the wider world, into the society his parents rejected.

Watch a clip of Captain Fantastic

When a family feud about a forthcoming funeral in New Mexico turns Captain Fantastic into a road movie, the Cash clan encounter supermarkets, trailer parks and suburban family suppers for the first time, with lively culture-clash results. Tempers flare at the home of Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn), where the Cash kids are mocked for thinking that Nike was a Greek goddess rather than a shoe, and Dave (Steve Zahn) wrestles with Ben’s sanctimonious fondness for telling “the truth”. Meanwhile, Ann Dowd and Frank Langella lend depth to the role of grieving parents whose animosity towards Ben becomes ever more understandable.

While smoke from the narrative pyre signals both Grand Theft Parsons and What We Did on Our Holiday, this is closer in tone to the anarchic indie spirit of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s wonderful The Kings of Summer with which it shares both an anarchic rural streak and a melancholic existential ennui.

Ross, whose own upbringing involved communes in northern California and Oregon, says that his film asks whether Ben is “the best father in the world or the worst” and Mortensen does a terrific job of keeping both possibilities alive. A pointed discussion of Nabokov with Ben’s super-smart kids flags up the question of how loving or abusive his parenting may be, leaving our own sympathies divided.

Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic.
Either ‘the best father in the world or the worst’... Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic. Photograph: Allstar/Electric City Entertainment

Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (best known for his work with Jacques Audiard) balances the beauty of the landscape against the toughness of the children’s lives, while Courtney Hoffman’s magpie costumes tell their own stories, from Ben’s poignantly dated wedding suit to the skins, patchworks and hand-me-downs that adorn the kids. Alex Somers’s surging musical soundscapes tug at the heartstrings, but it’s the diegetic songs that really strike a chord, from an early sequence in which a plaintive guitar duet is disrupted by young Rellian’s rhythmic alarums, to a Wicker Man-style reworking of Sweet Child O’ Mine that reduced me to tears. Elsewhere, Ross superbly segues from the soporific elevator tones of My Heart Will Go On to Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl during an outrageous supermarket sweep.

With its thrillingly life-affirming performances, it’s a shame that Captain Fantastic’s “strong language” has earned it a 15 certificate; there’s more here for adolescent audiences to enjoy and appreciate than in much 12-rated blockbuster fare. He may not be a superhero, but in terms of imagination, this captain really can fly.

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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