Death has a way of shaking the certainties of life, such as they are, down to their very foundations.
Try as we might to keep things exactly as they were before the cold hand of dread mortality comes calling, the reality is that life up to that point is forever changed and we either bend and adapt, or fight fruitlessly to hang onto a world whose familiar form no longer exists.
In the case of Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) who tends his brood of fiercely-intelligent, survivalist, knife loving and wielding kids out in the remote wilds of the US Pacific Northwest with a passion borne of long-hewn counter-culture inclination, the lessons start well before the death of mentally-ill wife Leslie (Trin Miller) but he is slow to acknowledge or heed them.
The man who provides the moral and emotional heart of Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, himself a product of communes in the region where the film is based – the film takes its title from a 1975 Elton John album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – Ben drives his children hard.
Working to a precise, unflinching timetable that would be the envy of the corporate titans Ben so manifestly and fiercely rejects, his children are drilled in everything from literature appreciation to deer-killing and rock climbing and much, much more, all with the intent of creating people wholly able to deal with life on their own peculiar terms.
It’s a bold, brazen experiment, the merits of which aren’t appreciated by Leslie’s parents, Jack and Abigail (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who take opportunity of their daughter’s untimely passing to seize control of her memory and the custody of the kids, leaving Ben to belatedly realise that he may have had the best of intentions but less-than-ideal execution.
What sets Captain Fantastic apart from more-crudely wrought films that wrestle with death and its usually wholly unwelcome consequences, is that eschews the us-and-them mentality that could so easily have driven the film.
While we can see quite vividly that Ben and Leslie’s six children Bodevan (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samanthat Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), rebellious Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks) and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) have gained from their highly unorthodox upbringing – they are are a closeknit group, much-loved, and their grasp of the world is astoundingly broad and deep; their social experience is however, by virtue of their isolated home, painfully lacking – Ross is also brave enough to acknowledge the drawbacks to Ben’s grand social experiment.
Namely that his children have missed out on some of the critical markers that define us as people; in other words, we are not simply what we know but who we come in contact with and what we gain from those relationships, both sustained and fleeting.
Naturally these points are writ large by Jack particularly, a successful man whose lavish home – an unethical waste of space and resources as his grandchildren archly and hilariously observe at one point – is testament to his conviction that a material life is a well-lived one.
The epiphany when it comes is not Frank’s, who remains irresolutely opposed to the wild lifestyle of his wayward grandchildren whom he fails to see have gained far more than they have lost from their X-Box and Nike-free lives, but rather Ben’s, who comes to understand that even the most virtuous of belief systems can be flawed if the welfare of its adherents plays second fiddle to its perpetuation.
As the film, propelled by a nuanced screenplay that is insightful, brutally real and inestimably moving, moves along from the family’s idyll in the trees to the almost-alien urban landscape of New Mexico and back home again, Ben is forced to finally acknowledge that Leslie’s death has changed things in ways so profound he cannot hope to cling to what he had in its entirety but must fashion something new out of the old.
It’s a harsh, emotionally-charged coming to grips with his emotionally and physically-changed world but one that is softened by the joyful hilarity of a family who is largely unaware, save for a few rebellious moments of tension that like everything in the Cash’s world is resolved in a frank and matter-of-fact way, that their ideal life is an oddity in a world that doesn’t celebrate Noam Chomsky Day (the family’s Christmas substitute) or receive knives as presents.
Captain Fantastic is quirky in the best possible way, its outlook on life grounded in avowedly counter-cultural principles and a fierce loyalty to independence of thought but collective emotional support, but it is also deeply authentic about the human experience, all too aware that death and its seismic repercussions spare no one, even those of hitherto pure utopian leanings.
The lessons learned by Ben, who was convinced for a long time that he could insulate his family, both from the effects of Leslie’s illness and subsequent death, is that there is only so much in the world that we can prevail against.
Eventually some accommodation, though not of central ideals which must remain sacrosanct lest death take both the form and the substance of a previous life, is needed or we become every but as hardcore and stuck in an orthodox rut as though things we oppose.
Captain Fantastic then is both a sage lesson in the realities of life, and death, but also a joyful, delightfully non-twee reminder, anchored by Mortensen’s robustly vulnerable performance, that it is possible to make peace with the grimness of the world without losing the very things that defined you in the first place.