He Prepared Them For Everything Except The Outside World
Generally speaking, right wing politicians/demagogues have not produced the kind of literature that their left-wing counterparts have. Maybe it’s the influence of Marx, but at least in the 20th century, some of the most famous left-wing thinkers are household(ish) names. Lenin. Trotsky. Mao. Not so much with the right-wing writers (though they’re out there, just not as household names). In contrast, after a short boom in the late-60s and early 70s, the left-wing largely gave up on survivalism and “living off the land” independence. But there’s no reason for these approaches to be mutually exclusive, and indeed they are united in Captain Fantastic, a film that tackles left-wing politics, survival in a corrupt society, and the difficulties of family. It does so with a set of stellar performances, even if some viewers will be put off by the film’s weirdness.
Ben (Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence) is raising his six children in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. They’re isolated by their living situation, but Ben is raising them to know political economy, physics, literature, music. He’s raising them as a part of, but antagonistic to, the dominant culture of capitalism, making sure they’re mentally and physically prepared to resist. Ben’s wife, however, has been ill for several months, and when she dies, Ben and his family discover that her father, who blames Ben for his daughter’s death, will be holding a funeral instead of cremating her as she had wished. Captain Fantastic follows Ben and his children as they make a road-trip to crash the funeral.
Captain Fantastic opens on a deer walking calmly through the woods, highlighting the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest. And then suddenly a mud-covered human figure jumps in front of the deer, grabs it and kills the deer by slicing its neck. Standing proudly in front of his kill, the young man is joined by five children and an adult, all covered in mud. They declare that the deer-killer is no longer a boy but a man. This is our introduction to Cash family. Initially they might seem like a savage tribe of atavistic loners. But in the next few scenes we see patriarch Ben quizzing his kids on history, literature, physics, and ensuring that they get appropriate physical training. They obviously grow their own food, and the deer is seen being butchered for meat. The Cash family may be weird, but they’re far from one-dimensional.
The absence of matriarch Cash, however, is noticeable, and around 20 minutes in we learn that not only has she been in the hospital, she has taken her own life. Those first 20 minutes display a weird equilibrium, as we watch what is in many ways a traditional family living in one of the more untraditional ways it’s possible to live in contemporary America. Then once Leslie, the Cash matriarch, commits suicide, all that is thrown out the window as the Cash family take their first trip outside their woodsy bubble.
The genius of Captain Fantastic is that it rocks back and forth across the line of normalcy and oddity. The Cash family are a normal-seeming family in a weird environment. Then when they travel to the funeral they’re an odd family in an environment most viewers will find normal. Perhaps most importantly, the film is about the things that all families share, like grief and love. And, honestly, disagreement. Captain Fantastic doesn’t sugar-coat any of this, and seems to say that disagreement is as fundamental to family as love or care. But doing this, the film urges us, I think, to look at families – our own and others – with new eyes.
All of this weirdness works because the cast are pretty amazing. Viggo Mortensen can apparently be convincing as anyone, so he makes a convincing independent free-thinker. George MacKay is similarly convincing as the oldest Cash child, ready to leave the nest but invested in his family and their philosophy. Annalise Basso continues to impress after her turn in Occulus, and in fact all the children are solid. Frank Langella is also great as Leslie’s father, the chief opponent of Ben’s lifestyle choices.
The film also gets an excellent Blu-ray release. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer impresses. Sourced digitally, the transfer showcases great detail. From the opening shots of the forest, with each leaf looking well-resolved, to the various funeral moments, everything looks good. Colors are bold and appropriately saturated, from the green of the forest to the loud outfits the Cash family wears to the funeral. Black levels are appropriately deep and consistent. There’s also no significant compression artifacts or noise to speak of. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 track is just as impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, while the surrounds help support the sonic environments of the forest and the funeral in equal measure. It’s not an aggressive track, but it supports the film’s choices well.
Sadly, the only extra is a four minute EPK-style featurette that gives viewers a brief glimpse into the film. This is the kind of flick that cries out for extensive extras, especially as its only actor-turned-director Matt Ross’ second feature film. DVD and an Ultraviolet Digital Copy are included as well.
Of course the film’s very uniqueness works against it. Many viewers will have some difficulty dealing with the Cash family and their eccentricities. Had this film been released a decade or so ago, it would have been labeled “quirky,” with all the backlash those films earned. I think the point of the film is that we should accept our eccentricities and try to love one another, but that might not extend to everyone who loves Viggo Mortensen enjoying this film.
Captain Fantastic is an odd drama that takes a unique approach to understanding family. It’s well executed and well acted, so fans of the performers should check it out. This Blu-ray could use some more extras, but the audiovisual presentation is top-notch.