Film Review: ‘Captain Fantastic’ is just that and Viggo Mortensen’s career best work

captain_fantasticUsually, when a title also sums up a movie, it’s in a negative or at least overtly punny way. Not so with Captain Fantastic, since the word fantastic is right at the tip of your tongue when the film ends. I had almost no expectations going in to this one, which made it even more delightful to uncover a thoughtful and moving drama.

The movie takes a somewhat quirky concept and spins it into an emotional and earnest family story that isn’t afraid to ask questions. Writer/director Matt Ross isn’t preaching a lifestyle or is he condemning it. He just has characters passionate on both sides that he allows to debate the merits of their particular convictions.

There were so many ways that this flick could have gone wrong, either becoming too over the top, too twee, or even too sappy. Ross finds a unique tone and sticks with it. For just about two hours, I felt transported, and isn’t that the ideal cinematic experience? Armed with some terrific cinematography and a career best turn by Viggo Mortensen, Ross crafts Captain Fantastic into something special. It’s among the top five things I’ve seen so far in 2016 and is an absolute must see.

We begin by being introduced to Ben (Mortensen), a father of six who is raising his brood in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest according to a very strict code. He’s isolated them from society, determined to craft them mentally and physically into extraordinary individuals.

As of late, he’s been doing this without his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), who is ill. The children range in age from about seven to the 18 year old Bo (George MacKay), who is perhaps both the most devout towards his father’s teachings.  He’s also the one most conflicted by the urges of the world. When something involving Leslie presents an opportunity to head to civilization and interact with the world, the children are keen to go, even if Ben isn’t.

.Eventually, he gives in and they set out in his converted school bus, affectionately named Steve, for society. There, especially when interacting with disapproving relatives (played by Kathryn Hahn and Frank Langella), Ben’s teachings are challenged. Is he crafting the best possible humans or engaging in child abuse? Could it be both?

captain_fantastic_film_2I really can’t say enough about the work Viggo Mortensen. He’s able to give this character so much life that you’re under his spell; whether you agree or disagree with Ben’s view of the world and outlook on raising his children. We see the best and worst of him, with Mortensen showcasing that brilliantly. In a perfect world, he would be in the Best Actor conversation for the Oscars.

While Mortensen is the stand out, George MacKay gets to really showcase some talent as the eldest child while Frank Langella is a steady presence, as always.  Kathryn Hahn is welcomed in just about anything with Ann Dowd and Steve Zahn solid as other relatives.

Matt Ross had flown under the radar as a filmmaker, despite enjoying his work as an actor in such diverse fare as American Psycho and HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Here, armed with cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine and music by Alex Somers, Ross is able to create a fully realized world, full of confidence. His direction is lush and emotive, while his script pays more than lip service to those who would question some of the lessons being put forward by certain characters.

There’s an obvious tilt towards what Ben believes in, with Ross showcasing that in certain scenes (often with a comedic bent), but the drama kicks in when the real world infringes on that.  Nothing here for Ross is black and white, and rightly so. I can’t wait to see what he opts to do next.

When you get right down to it, what we have in Captain Fantastic is really just a fascinating lifestyle character study (if that makes sense). Between what Mortensen is doing and how Ross is establishing himself as a filmmaker to watch out for, there’s plenty to be impressed by.

You’ll definitely laugh, you might very well cry, and you’ll certainly ponder the points being made within. This is a full meal, one that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

GRADE: (★★★½)

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

About Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of Indiewire's Criticwire Network as well as the Internet Film Critics Association.
  • Joey Magidson

    It’s a tremendously good movie.