Friday, May 26, 2017

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic (2016) written and directed by Matt Ross

Viggo Mortensen is Ben, a father of six who lives with his children in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Ben is a survivalist and intellectual and wants to pass those on to his children. They live a life that is idyllic for Ben; the children hardly know any other life. On one of his runs to a nearby town for mail and supplies, he calls his father-in-law to check on the status of his wife, who had been hospitalized many months before. This call is the worst news--she has committed suicide. And the father-in-law says he will have Ben arrested if he shows up for the funeral because he blames Ben for her condition. Ben tells the children, who are naturally very sad though Ben is not very comforting. When he reads her will, he discovers that she wants to be cremated and taken to a populous area where her ashes will be flushed down a toilet. Ben wants to respect her wishes, so he packs the kids up and heads off to the Southwestern United States.

Initially Ben's life is presented as idyllic. The children read and discuss and farm and hunt in the forest. Once they confront the rest of the world, the contrast is stark and his parenting looks very questionable. The oldest son, who has been accepted to a bunch of Ivy League universities, has no ability to talk to young women his own age. The children's lack of basic social and life skills is a reflection of his anti-capitalist ideology which has really poisoned them against everything--for example, he hates not just fast food but even a normal diner or restaurant (claiming "there's no real food on this menu"), though he's perfectly willing to steal junk food from a grocery store. The contradictions in his lifestyle come to a head when he gets to his wife's funeral and he has to confront his father-in-law.

The movie's great strength is that it shows both the good and bad of Ben's decisions and forces him to deal with the consequences for himself and for his children. Exploring that shift for Ben is quite fascinating. The movie waffles a bit at the end, trying to have two very different emotional endings. He both gives up everything and gets everything he wants, which makes no narrative or thematic sense in the story, especially with the third and final ending where Ben has learned to adjust, presumably for the sake of his children.

This movie brings up a lot of interesting points for discussion but, as a narrative, the strong beginning is let down by too many endings that don't fit with each other.

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