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  • Articles by Susan

    Film review: Captain Fantastic Directed by Matt Ross, 2016

    Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic gives us Ben Cash, living off grid in the backwoods with his six intellectually precocious children. Raised to reject religion and the average American and his way of life, but worshiping at the altar of Noam Chomsky, the family might well have been portrayed as romantic lick the earth types, but the story opens with Lord of the Flies savagery as the little Chomskyites hunt, kill and butcher a deer.


    ‘What we created here’ says Cash, early in the film ‘may be unique in all of human history. We created a paradise’. And Cash makes the creation of this paradise in the woods look pretty easy, taking the kids climbing, teaching them several languages, making their own music, and killing their own dinner.  It’s certainly a beguiling set up.

    And in a nice play on the film title’s reference to comic book heroes, Captain Fantastic delivers an uplifting defence of intellectual argument and brain-power instead of belligerent combat and superpowers. Played mainly for laughs it is still a serious argument in favour of alterative cultural values and an engaging exploration of fatherhood and family life. But even though Ross has crafted a well-made chair of a film, straightforward in execution and delivery, it sometimes lacks finesse.

    The Paradisiacal fabric of Cash’s alternative life is fractured when his wife Leslie commits suicide whilst being treated for depression. All this takes place off screen, the focus remaining firmly on Cash and the children as the story develops and the family contend with her funeral and their extended family. As they do so they inevitably come into contact with mainstream American life, replete with questionable educational standards and obesity, and it is this journey to the outside world, both literal and metaphorical, that challenges Cash’s views of parenting and his place in the world. A visit to Cash’s sister is tremendously funny in portraying this culture clash with the one of the youngest children asking with great gravity how the roast chicken, served up at dinner, was killed ‘with an axe or a knife?’

    Matt Ross is good at exploring the moral conundrums that Cash faces in the ‘real’ world. It would have been easy to give the audience a one-sided argument from Cash; his disillusionment with American life and his rejection of its often questionable values. But there’s more to Cash (ironically named since he has turned his back on a cash-focused society) than mere posturing. Captain Fantastic is at its best when Cash and his father-in-law Jack (played with authority and wit by Frank Langella) both confront their entrenched views and take stock.

    The conflict between them develops when Jack bans Cash from Leslie’s funeral, blaming Cash and his way of life for her illness and eventual death. Much of the film’s moral questioning about cultural values is played out through Cash’s relationships with his sons: Bodevan (George Mackay) and Reillian (Nicholas Hamilton), both of whom are mini-Cash’s in the making, taking on the mantle of the old man and taking off to explore the world. Cue a clash of civilisations between Jack and Cash over whether the children should be brought back into ‘civilisation’ when younger son Reillian refuses to tow the alternative line any more. 

    But at that point viewers need to put on critical blinkers as the plot veers into hokum territory and a frankly ludicrous (and somewhat repellent) ending involving Leslie’s dead body. There are some clunkers in the plot too - why does Cash give in so readily to Jack when the film has set Cash up as a character bent on winning the moral high ground and taking no hostages in the process? The moral high ground that Cash takes isn’t so high either, encouraging his children to steal and rationalising it as a subversive act just doesn’t cut it.

    There are other broader issues here as well. As usual women don’t get a look in, the girls are just bystanders and even Leslie’s suicide is way too convenient thereby missing an opportunity to give an alternative adult view of the off-grid life.

    Certainly though Mortensen is a more comfortable and comforting character than Harrison Ford playing Allie Fox in Mosquito Coast. That film covered much of the same ground (rejecting modern consumerist American life) but with a great deal more bitterness and reality thrown in. Captain Fantastic though is generally light hearted, despite the subject matter, and Mortensen and the children play well to this. But the problems with characterisation and the flaws in the plot diminish the film, so that it lacks the bite that even a more humorous approach could have tolerated.


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