The family at the centre of Captain Fantastic is one the most enigmatic I’ve come across on screen. The patriarch of this family, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), is raising his six children off the grid in the woods outside Washington, USA. The family lives off nature as evidenced by their ornate treehouses or the game they have to hunt and crops they have to tend by way of food. Then there’s the ideological spectrum this family operates on.
The Cash family are staunch communists and detest capitalism like a sickness – at least that is how papa Cash would have it. They celebrate the birthday of Noam Chomsky (No shame in googling) like it’s an annual festival. I bet the recent passing of Fidel Castro would have been marked as a sacred day in the Cash household and kin unborn. Given their ideology and the consumerist American society, it isn’t hard to see why they live out in the forest in a life that play as porn and pure fantasy to some modern day communists.
Their levels of Communist/Marxist/Maoist/Leninist consciousness are matched by their intellect. Ben Cash makes sure his kids have mastery over multiple languages and they are well versed in other essential academic disciplines. The family is also in elite physical shape with their gruelling woodland runs and treacherous mountain ascents. The surface to this family is perpetually amusing and beguiling as encapsulated by their evening campfires accompanied by soothing serenity, warmth and some acoustic splendour. But of course, this is all too simple.
The layers and possible rifts in the Cash family become apparent when we come to learn Ben’s wife has killed herself in a mental institution. She was bipolar. We are given some insight to the contempt Ben’s in-laws harbour for him and indeed the resentment brooding in his own family. Ben has been warned by his wife’s father (Frank Langella) not attend the funeral but this only becomes the latest embodiment of the man. The defiant Cash family pack up and ready for a five-day journey to the funeral in New Mexico.
By this point, we are already aware the Cash kids have not been prepared for the outside world. Earlier in the film, we see the oldest child, Bo (George MacKay), act like he is caught in medusa’s gaze when he encounters some girls. Ben believes teaching his kids how to survive in the forest like Rambo from First Blood or how to navigate by the stars are essential. But others feel his children should be in the real world living a regular life so as expected, we get the section of the film where Ben’s parenting skills are attacked – not just by the outside world but from within.
Ben’s second boy, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), has taken the loss especially hard and even goes a step further to blame his father for their mother’s death by accusing him aggravating her mental illness. Then there’s Bodevan who is undoubtedly brilliant and starts receiving college acceptance letters from ivy league colleges. But he is unsure of how his father will react to this development. New variables are being introduced into the family dynamic and it becomes increasingly clear proverbial centre cannot hold as the concept of compromise is missing from Ben’s parenting handbook.
Ben’s mode of parenting wants for balance, but that is the simplistic way of looking at things. The Cash patriarch becomes more compelling when you understand his anti-capitalistic ideals are basically a religion. Teach your kids the way they should go so when they grow, they do not depart from it, the bible says. Ben simply wants his ideals to rub off on his kids. He regards them as important. My family sat for devotions where scripture was read and memorised. Here, the Cash’s sit to meditate in the still woods or engage in violent sparring bouts or spend nights digesting complex literature.
Is Ben a horrible father for this or is he the world’s greatest dad? This is one of the questions Captain Fantastic posits and writer/director Matt Ross knows how to get the crux via entertaining and compelling character moments. Ross’ script never mistakes Ben to be a weird hippie or outwardly. Take away the forest setting and it’s easy to list the kids I met growing up who had similar parents – be it on the spectrum of religion or academia or culture. Mortensen is great at projecting Ben as the authoritarian father convinced his decisions, however unhinged, are in the best interest of his kids.
I can never get enough of Mortensen and his stellar imposing showing here is well matched by the supporting cast, especially Mackay and Hamilton. They feature strongly in the film’s moments of pathos giving substance and grace to the drama as they bear the frustration, anger and indeed grief. Credit must go to the gorgeous ways in which Ross captures this family. His camera moves with a keen interest in the family making time for close-ups of the books they read, the ditzy details in their apparel and the design of their bus that just happens to have a microscope lying around. But there also remains a warm familiarity with them.
There is some intrigue to the way Ross treats the character of Ben. I wonder if some cynicism would have serviced the varying age ranges that try to assess his motives. The film feels detached from the justified anger Bo and Rellian felt towards their father and as someone closer to childhood than parenthood, I would have preferred Ross actively rooted for the kids than the father. The tone only really contemplates scolding Ben when he is hard on himself. This means the moments of humility from Ben the parent aren’t as heartfelt as they should have been.
Then again, Ross is a father of two so it is easy to see why he would sympathise with Ben. In 20 years, I will probably view this film differently and scoff when Rellian openly rebels against his father. The layers notwithstanding, the focus remains family. Ross doesn’t take his eye off the ball to satirise the antithesis of the Cash ethos (though we get a “we don’t make fun of people… except Christians” joke). Captain Fantastic has Ben Cash and his travails to occupy audiences and provide the kind of experience that matches its title.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana