Deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his six children, isolated from the modern world. A devoted father, Ben has dedicated his life to raising his kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education, and instilled in them a rare and primal connection to the natural world. But when a tragedy strikes, the family is forced to leave their self-created paradise. Suddenly the children must face the excitement and perils of an unfamiliar world, while Ben is compelled to re-examine what it means to be a parent.
Review by Louise Keller:
Two opposing lifestyles come head to head in this potent exploration, in which a single father teaches his six children survival skills in their forest wilderness home. In his second feature, Matt Ross has created a fascinating reality in which we become enveloped into an alternate way of life: one where the children of varying ages learn life skills and simple truths by controversial means. It's a wonderful role for Viggo Mortensen who slips naturally into the shoes of a hippie mountain man who home schools his children and instructs them in the art of physical and mental disciplines. Family, relationships and choices are canvassed as the social structures in which we live are questioned - often to their detriment.
In a memorable opening sequence involving a stag and the initiation of a boy into manhood, we are catapulted into the world of Ben (Mortensen), a loving father who believes in frankness and honesty in all things. The no-nonsense way in which he tells the children about sex, life and death are somewhat shocking - until we are able to observe for ourselves the gauge by which the family lives. Books play a major role and there are philosophical discussions including why the family does not celebrate Christmas but Noam Chomsky Day. But life is not all exercise and survival. There is a simple beauty in the way that the family sings and dances at the end of the day, accompanied by guitars, accordion, castanets and a primitive wooden crate for rhythm.
The extent to which Ben has 'trained' his children becomes apparent as their road trip to New Mexico begins. The scene in which the bus the family calls home is pulled over by a road patrol officer is one to savour and best discovered in the context of the film. Lunch in a diner, shopping at a supermarket, picnic by a lake - seemingly simple events are shown to be far from simple. Our perceptions change as we are seduced by the logic of many of Ben's ideas.
Ross has gathered a splendid young cast that is totally convincing. George McKay plays Bodevan, the eldest child, whose coming of age is not only related to the aforementioned stag, but also to his sexuality. The scene when he meets a pretty girl in a trailer park is both touching and amusing.
The crucial emotional bullets are reserved for the family's arrival in New Mexico, when the contrast of lifestyles is at its most devastating. Stability is replaced by uncertainty and conflict, and the contrast between the simple life (like sleeping under the stars) and life in the home displaying 'vulgar display of wealth' could not be greater. Watch for Frank Langella as the children's well-intentioned grandfather.
As the story changes directions, there is nothing manipulated about the emotions that are on display. I was profoundly moved by the powerful and beautiful resolution. Resonating with truth, this is an unforgettable film filled with surprises, offering yet again another towering performance by Mortensen, an actor whose sense of self enhances the roles he plays.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's quite a journey from the opening scene of the magnificent northwest wilderness of the US, where a boy graduates to manhood in an act of hunting, watched by his father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his five siblings, to the flushing of a public toilet bowl. That confronting opening killing is not just a ritual but the source of meat for this odd family, which has lived in the woods for some years, it seems. The mother is absent - gravely ill in hospital.
Ben has home schooled the kids, so much so they know everything about everything, which suggests Ben does, too. Allowing some licence here, we can forgive such excesses in the story, partly because it is Viggo 'Credible' Mortensen, partly because the story can be read as a fable. The family's isolation gives the filmmakers an opportunity to look back on the modern world from a distance, and unpick some of its elements. Most effectively, I think, the way we hide children from facts, shielding them, we believe, from things they are not yet old enough to know. Well, bugger that, says Ben; he tells them everything as it is, from why do men stick their penis in women's vagina, to death.
The survival training, which Ben delivers with considerable discipline, teaches his children how to survive - at least in the forest, and their library of a home. They are also bright enough to have a mind of their own, not to mention feelings.
When they have to leave their private paradise, the adventure is fraught with all kinds of danger, not least of the human nature kind. To his credit, Matt Ross has not fallen for the traps of cheap shots; indeed, he has made it hard for himself to extricate Ben from the moral and existential threats he has himself engineered.
It's not just Mortensen who delivers great performances: every one of the five children are exceptional (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks), as are adult supports such as Frank Langella as Ben's resolute father in law, Kathryn Hahn as Harper, Ben's sister and Steve Zahn as her husband.
Challenging, complex and engaging, Captain Fantastic (irony abounds) is a bracing addition to the movie menu, observing the human condition with a jaundiced eye.
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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (M)
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, George MacKay, Nicholas Hamilton, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Missi Pyle
PRODUCER: Monica Levinson, Jamie Patricof, Shivani Rawat
DIRECTOR: Matt Ross
SCRIPT: Matt Ross
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Stephane Fontaine
EDITOR: Joseph Krings
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Russell Barns
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: eOne
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 8, 2016