Berkeley-raised writer and director Matt Ross stays true to his roots with Captain Fantastic—which will surely seem a deep movie in that city (and Santa Cruz, as well), thanks to its spirit of political grievance, its mottos, and its fantasy of chucking it all to head for the redwoods. (It’s firs and pines, actually; set in Washington state, the film is shot in Canada.)
In the film’s opening scene, we see a many-pronged buck peeking through a thicket—so peaceful and serene that you know it’s all over for the deer. Hiding, face painted with camouflage, young Bo (short for Bodevan, and played by George MacKay) pops out and stabs it in the throat.
Butchering the out-of-season deer, Bo’s father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) solemnly anoints his eldest son’s forehead with the blood, giving him a tidbit of raw liver to eat: “The boy is gone. In his place is a man.”
The patriarch has been raising his bustling family of six semi-differentiated children in the woods; the kids include a set of blond twin boys, as per a ’60s sitcom. They live off-grid in a jumble of buildings and a schoolbus, playing music around the campfire by night. In the mornings, they’re rousted by “Reveille,” pumped from bagpipes to make it sound worse. They read important books, practice martial arts and climb rocks—it’s a mix of Outward Bound and the Swiss Family Robinson.
What of the woman who mothered these kids—she, who in defiance of the environmentalism flaunted here, added this platoon to an overpopulated world? She has gone to where my own mom of five said we children were sending her: straight to the madhouse. Her timely suicide spurs a road trip to confront the angry in-laws, who are hosting the funeral in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Bo has a secret. Though he was homeschooled, his mail box is stuffed with acceptance letters from every Ivy League college on the Eastern Seaboard.
Captain Fantastic gives the sense of a movie set in the 1970s but updated to the present, for budgetary reasons. Under the Sundance-ian stylings—“Little Miss Sunshine goes prepper!”—there’s a whiff of mold to this script. After adventures on the road, Ben and his clan get a cold welcome from the grandfather, Jack (Frank Langella) who has called in the police to bar Ben and his brood from the funeral.
I’ve been watching Langella with pleasure for a half a century, but he proves the old rule: play Dracula and you won’t come back. Black clad and stern, he’s the counter-cultural nightmare. Seeing Ben in his thrift shop-bought funeral attire, a scarlet polyester number, Jack growls: “A hippie in a clown suit.”
Is Jack wrong? Actor turned director Ross (he’s the Hooli CEO from TV’s Silicon Valley) uses Ben and his pack as a way of flagellating a greedy and obese nation. If only he’d made these Spartan kids less like supermen—made them a little more damaged. Their jam sessions are always in sync; if the script bemoans TV watchers, these musical scenes resemble The Partridge Family.
One actress stands out, aside from Kathryn Hahn, as Ben’s sister in law, an unheeded voice of common sense. At a trailer park, the movie gets a brief spark from the mocking teenage Claire (Erin Moriarty). She brings out the funny side of Bo’s plight—the problem of learning from books. Since Bo is full of the Victorian novels he’s absorbed, he expects that a casual kiss must be followed by a wordy, kneeling marriage proposal.
As for Mortensen—he’s far from the soft-spoken, cowboy-movie intensity he brought to Lord of the Rings. He recalls critic Clive Davis’ description of a certain Shakespearean actor: “He played the part with an intensity that made you wish he hadn’t.” Ross is enthralled with this dictatorial crank, even posing him under a CG waterfall. Both ’60s kook and Chingachgook, Ben is insufferably right all the time. Ross is so adoring of his character’s fantasticness that he practically has the camera up Viggo’s nose.
With Viggo Mortensen, George Mackay, Frank Langella and Erin Moriarty. Written and directed by Matt Ross. Rated R. 118 Mins.