Viggo Mortensen flexes his dad muscles once again in Captain Fantastic, this time as rogue philosopher and father of six, Ben Cash, a man tired of contributing to a corrupt system where politicians are puppets for interest groups and moral values are traded for stock options. So when Hillary tightens her stranglehold on the media and buries Bernie under superdelegates, Ben thinks to himself, “Time to stick it to the man.” Realizing that America might never wake up, he and his wife Leslie (Trinn Miller) pack the kids onto their VW bus and move to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. There they’ll live off the land and emancipate themselves from mental slavery. A man who has his family has all the riches in the world, you see.
It’s here. Bernie Bro: The Movie is here.
All right, so it isn’t #BernieOrBust that makes Ben and Leslie decide to live as forest people—they do it for the more abstract purpose of protecting their kids from the ills of modern society. And they don’t take a VW, they take a school bus. But barring a few particulars, Captain Fantastic is the incarnation of a Bernie base consciousness. When Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) urges him to put the kids in a “normal school,” he has his 9-year-old daughter demonstrate her civic knowledge by babysplaining the Citizens United v FEC decision). The kids’ names are Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai, obviously. The school bus’s name is Steve. Shepard Fairey even designed the promotional Father’s Day poster.
And, like the Brothers Bern, Captain Fantastic winds up falling to bullheaded egoism. Despite mounting wrong turns, it marches forward without evolving its message or its characters. Great performances, especially from Mortensen and George MacKay as eldest son Bo, keep it afloat for well into the second act—until capsizing from a blistering acoustic cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by the Cash family band, aka Dr. Viggo’s 100% Natural Good-Time Swiss Family Robinson Solution.
By the time Ben gets some devastating news about his wife, who only appears in the movie in flashbacks, he had already been raising (“training”) the kids by himself for a while. They hunt deer by day and read Guns, Germs and Steel by night. “We built a paradise,” he echoes. But the tragic development regarding Leslie compels Ben to bring his kids into the world he’s warned them about their whole lives. After learning of the bougie funeral Leslie’s father (an underused Frank Langella) is planning for her, the Cash cab heads for the city on a rescue mission to spare her the inhumanity of being laid to rest in a country club golf course. In honoring her last will and testament—to be cremated and flushed down a public toilet—Ben allows his kids, his “philosopher kings,” to roam among the sheeple while he must try real hard to be the shepherd.
Matt Ross, who joined the mixed bag of actors-turned-directors in 2012 with 28 Hotel Rooms, has a great command over use of space. Combined with Ross’s sense for the actors’ physicalities, Ben’s PE classes pack an especially visceral punch. (He keeps the kids in shape by chasing them up mountains, rounding out the day with extreme rock climbing.) Many of Ross’s best scenes come after Ben shares the news about Leslie’s death and he visualizes their strife by cutting rapidly from their sweat-soaked faces to their shaking bodies. But Ross is an actor’s director through and through, both in presenting his hero as a lonely god among men and in treating the rest of the film as dispensable commentary. Once he pulls the fam from the confines of Ben’s forest kingdom, things get messier.
Ben Cash as a character is a cultural fixture—he’s in countless South Park episodes; he’s in your dad’s college photo albums; he traveled with the Rock Against Bush concert tour. In Ben Cash, Ross creates the perfect foil to his day job as Gavin Belson, HBO’s greedy tech magnate and slime of Silicon Valley. Unlike Gavin, Ben is a pretty good guy. Like Gavin, he’s also insane. But Ross only acknowledges this as an abstract possibility. Ben’s daughter analyzing Lolita—“I hate him but I also feel sorry for him, he loves her so much”—seems to address Ben’s questionable parenting, as does a guardianship showdown with his in-laws.
Still, much of the film’s nuclear family drama is forced, with legitimate issues that civilized society presents never confronted sincerely. What was shaping up to be a justified custody battle is downsized to a skirmish and brushed off. Conflict isn’t resolved, it disappears. The third act feels like a tour through what should have been Ben’s unrealized fantasy. Not to say the first 90 minutes aren’t rife with quixotic grandeur, but the last 30 contain a series of events so fortuitous and untethered to causality that the film ends up retroactively gutted of substance.
Captain Fantastic borrows from Little Miss Sunshine in cataloguing the misadventures of a misfit family on a road trip, complete with MacKay as a Paul Dano stand-in. But missing from its arc is the sense of growth meant to accompany triumph. Even though Olive doesn’t win the pageant, the characters learn from their journey. And so it goes. Captain Fantastic’s passion for extra-crunchy progressivism is served with a large side of emotional fructose, but one can’t subsist on brownie points alone. In this case, mistaking book-smarts for wisdom and good intentions for good decisions comes at the expense of great storytelling.
Director: Matt Ross
Writer: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
Release: July 8, 2016