Danish American actor Viggo Mortensen has broken with convention in more ways than one throughout his career in film from his acting debut in Peter Weir’s thriller Witness (1985) until his ‘fantastic’ performance in Far From Men (2015), which proved him to be an international acting treasure.
In his new movie Captain Fantastic, he is the perfect choice to play a committed, progressive spiritually aware and gentle father of six children living an unconventional lifestyle.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.
Ben (Mortensen) and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have deliberately decided to cut the cords that bind their family to mainstream society and raise their six children in the woods of north western America.
When we meet the ‘Captain’ (minus a whistle) he is without Leslie, teaching them all to live off the land, hunting and killing game before preparing it for cooking. The best present he could possibly give them is a knife.
He believes by home schooling them himself he is helping to keep their opportunities and possibilities viable and alive.
While hunting for food, killing a deer, skinning, sectioning it and cooking it over a camp fire, they debate with their father, the ideas of Russian novelist and short story writer Dostoevsky, whose psychological penetration into the dark recesses of the human heart changed the future of fiction.
All the while they are also discussing the theories and philosophies of such figures in history as Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, learning the US Constitution by rote and pondering the merits of quantum theory.
Ben urges his children to shrug off capitalism, to ignore Xmas, to reject religion, technology of any kind and to essentially become modern day hippies.
Routine and rituals are important, and each day he has a punishing exercise routine for them to follow, one full of physical and intellectual activity.
Learning wilderness survival and self defense techniques, they also tackle extreme rock climbing, which looks exhausting. Age doesn’t mean that the youngest get a dispensation, and bruises and injuries are part of the experience.
The inherent qualities and characteristics of all the actors who play the children shine through, and they are simply amazing in their roles.
By drawing on their own resources of exterior and interior strength and by exercising their intelligence from 6 – 18, their individual personalities shine through as each embrace a Bohemian lifestyle.
In addition to the eldest Bodevan (George MacKay) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), there is his rebellious son Rellian (young Aussie actor (Nicholas Hamilton – pictured), the tiny endearing Zaja (Shree Crooks) and two stunning teen daughters Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso).
They are respectful, bright young people full of enthusiasm for the life they lead, which is wildly unconventional and one in which they are all treated equally.
On their behalf, the plain speaking Ben has an almost brutal directness, telling his children the truth at all times whether it is to do with family matters, sexual urges or social issues. No one issue is ever passed over even the death of their mother.
We learn in the course of events that Leslie had bi-polar disorder and returned to live with her domineering and wealthy father Jack (Frank Langella) and gentle and understanding mother (Ann Dowd) so that she would be able to undergo further extensive treatment and care.
Just like Ben, Leslie didn’t really care about what other people think or what society dictates. Before she left she charged her husband to keep their dreams alive, leaving a will with him that clearly declares her wishes in event of her death.
Ben learns she has gone when he goes into town to take a phone call from her father Jack, who warns him off coming to his daughter’s funeral by threatening his life.
“Your mother is dead,” Ben announces to the children when he gets back to the camp.
Dealing with the grief the best way they know how the children decide they want to see her and say their goodbyes, as well as celebrate her life.
Ben tells them their grandfather doesn’t want them to come, however they insist and he finally agrees, because he’s not easily put off by her father’s threats.
Ben like all dreamers who turns his idealism into a course of action, doesn’t really consider the wider consequences of his actions and what they may turn out to be. He and the children pack up and head off to New Mexico in the family bus.
The children’s unique names make them stand out in the human landscape, especially when they stop overnight in a caravan park en route to their grandparents where they learn many new lessons for the first time, including how to interact and assimilate with others.
The shock of mixing with ‘normal folk’ offers us many lighter moments, including one priceless scene where the kids receive ‘presents’ while celebrating “Noam Chomsky Day”.
The Director Matt Ross balances beautifully the comparison between Ben’s straight talking to his kids against his wife’s sister and her husband’s white lies told to theirs on an overnight stopover as they traverse the highway to reach the funeral.
Their two sons are glued to their iPhones and don’t know what truth is, because they are told so many ‘white lies’ they are now unable to access it.
Embarrassment becomes the order of the day, especially for Bodevan. He is especially awkward and distressed over his immediate emotional reaction to meeting a young woman of his own age for the first time.
He understands completely why his body reacts the way it does but not why he starts talking nonsense and blurting out a proposal of marriage after she gives him his first kiss.
Then there is the sight of Mortensen standing casually on steps of the family bus in the buff, while eating his breakfast, another gem of a moment showing up how stupid we all are about nudity.
Mortensen absolutely shines when interacting with the children and defending his choices to others, although society can be a harsh critic that en masse, is hard to deal with.
Dressed in clothes straight out of the flower power 70’s, they burst into the church where a formal solemn service for Leslie is already underway. It doesn’t help their Dad is dressed in the only suit he has to wear, the ‘red’ one he wore for his wedding to Leslie back in the day.
When he goes up to the podium to take over from the priest and deliver his wife’s eulogy, his father in law Jack is appalled and insists he comes down because he’s determined to give his daughter what he considers a ‘proper’ funeral.
The children and Ben had been hoping to celebrate their mother’s life and so the whole situation is awkward and distressing for all involved.
After the funeral is over Jack tells Ben that he and his wife are going to file for custody and take the children away from him. After all, Jack’s a man respected in the community where he lives, and having money helps.
Ben is intimidated, not wanting to put his children through such horrific trauma, he quietly agrees to leave without fuss. After dinner thinking they have all gone to bed, he heads off back home in the bus without the children. For him it is a terrible outcome.
The kids however have got wind of Jack’s plans. Like their father, they are distressed that their mother’s father completely ignores his daughter’s last wishes. They believe they have no other option but to take matters into their own hands. After all they have been taught to think for themselves, not merely do as they are told.
Discovering they are hiding in the bus after clearing the swanky suburb where their grandparents live, they tell their father they have a plan. They want to kidnap their mother’s body from the cemetery where she’s been buried and conduct their own ceremony to carry out her wishes. Taking a vote as is their democratic way, they all agree.
Every frame of this movie is luminous and enriching. It looks and sounds wonderful and Matt Ross clearly respects the emotions of the audience and the characters alike all the way through.
Captain Fantastic is not a movie for cynics or pessimists but for optimists, those who love life. It doesn’t attempt to convince us that Ben’s way is the right way to parent children.
Poignant, offbeat and while perhaps not fitting into the mould of a superhero, Ben together with his children, provide many thought provoking moments for us to share.
Captain Fantastic should inspire many to consider their own attitudes, parenting options and how the way of truth would benefit the whole human experience.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Trailer