In the opening scene of Captain Fantastic
, the new film from writer-director Matt Ross, Ben’s (Viggo Mortensen) teenage son Bodevan (George MacKay) sneaks through a thick forest as he tracks and kills a deer. Ben guts the thing and hands Bodewin the heart, which he then eats. Ben then tells him he has now crossed the threshold and become a man.
This sets the tone for the intense drama about a man whose attempts to live off the grid do horribly awry when his wife Leslie passes away and he must head back to the civilized world with his six kids to attend her funeral. While it settles for a few family drama cliches, the strong performances distinguish the movie.
The film opens areawide on Friday.
Like some kind of drill sergeant, Ben keeps his kids on a tight leash. He home schools them, teaching them history, politics and philosophy with all the rigor of a college professor (which he was before dropping out of society). But he also instructs them how to survive in the wild and live off the land. The one thing that’s missing — social skills.
So when Ben and the kids leave the wilderness and pile into an old school bus to head to New Mexico for his wife’s funeral, they have trouble interacting with other children who would rather play video games and eat junk food than read the works of Noam Chomsky and forage for food. That contrast is never more apparent than when they spend the night with Ben’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her family. Ben and Harper argue about what’s best for the children, and Ben leaves in a huff.
Ben's not on better terms with his dead wife’s father, Jack (Frank Langella), and when he gets word that Jack has planned a funeral service at the local church, he becomes enraged. Much like Ben, Leslie embraced an off-the-grid lifestyle and in her will she requested a far less reverent funeral. When the kids wind up caught in the middle of the standoff between Ben and Jack, Ben realizes his extreme views might need to be tempered. A tragedy forces a change of heart.
To Mortensen’s credit, he plays the role of the smart but short-tempered Ben so well that shortcomings in the script don’t detract from his performance. And the relatively unknown actors and actresses who play the parts of his highly intelligent but maladjusted kids deserve kudos too. They keep the movie, which ultimately settles for a standard family drama conclusion, from becoming run-of-the-mill stuff.