"Captain Fantastic" Is Mostly Wonderful, Emotionally Complex

Good parenting can be evident from county lines away: happy, well-adjusted parents raising happy, well-adjusted kids. But sometimes, the margin between loving parent and raving lunatic is virtually imperceptible, requiring not only a microscope but also someone qualified to operate it. “Captain Fantastic” is that microscope and writer-director Matt Ross is that technician, with subject Ben, an eccentric father of six, embodied exquisitely by “Lord Of The Rings” actor Viggo Mortensen. Ross’ findings make for an incisive, mostly terrific family drama that lamentably flames out in its final reel.

There is comedy here, but not as much as you’d think coming from a filmmaker best known for his acting work on HBO’s masterful “Silicon Valley.” (Ross plays the show’s hysterical arch-villain Gavin Belson.) The veneer of quirky indie comedy in “Captain Fantastic” is but a snack. The meal is in the juicy, chin-dripping family dysfunction that’s at once commendable in its aim and off the charts bonkers in its execution.

Ross’ screenplay begins in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Ben is essentially raising his four daughters and two sons as Marxist anarcho-primitivists in a tiny, tree-covered encampment. That is, he’s opted out of an increasingly corporate society on behalf of his family, forcing them to live, school, and forage for their own food out in the wild. (Think “The Sound Of Music” by way of Vladimir Lenin.) With his wife and the mother of his children receiving treatment for mental illness in a hospital in New Mexico – a source of much controversy within the family – Ben is left to continue his children’s intensive physical and mental training regimen on his own.

Not twenty minutes in, we’re left to Ben matter-of-factly informing his brood that their mother has committed suicide. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, piled on to by a sense of isolation and helplessness. But Ross directs it empathetically instead of confrontationally, turning an admittedly unsubtle premise inside out. Soon, Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella) is on the phone telling him in no uncertain terms that he is not to attend the funeral. Far be it from a Noam Chomsky die-hard to do what he’s told. Ben and the kids are soon off in their blue school bus for New Mexico.

Most of the remainder is a tasty blend of road movie, coming-of-age saga (Ben’s oldest son declaring his love for a new female acquaintance is a comedic highpoint), and social experiment gone wrong – and right. When Steve Zahn (“That Thing You Do!”) and Kathryn Hahn (“Bad Moms”) show up as Ben’s brother-and-sister-in-law, Ross takes the opportunity to dazzlingly deconstruct the failures of modern parenting, but without really passing judgment on the parents themselves. (No, it’s the Xbox-addicted teenage idiots who come off as the real heels.)

Importantly, the screenplay’s humor – for example, an impromptu roadside Birthday celebration – is baked-in, separating it from Wes Anderson’s typically brilliant but undeniably affected cinematic world-building. Ross’ world is much closer to reality, compromised of moments instead of punchlines, topped off by an actor working at the highest of levels.

Mortensen disappears into the role like never before – not even in career best performances under David Cronenberg (“A History Of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”). Audiences will have little concept that they’re watching an actor, only a hippie dad unironically gifting his 5-year-old daughter a hunting knife in celebration of Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Ben is characterized so well that he might have worked in the hands of other actors. But he wouldn’t have come off as deep or conflicted as he does here, thanks to some resplendent work from one of the world’ most underrated performers.

It’s a sad thing that the screenplay stumbles so badly in act III, turning to weepy melodrama and bad Guns N’ Roses covers where it might have steeled itself and embraced the darkness at its core. That’s not to say there isn’t darkness in its ending – there is – but it comes with a shine that the rest of the movie doesn’t have. And it dives headlong into the unabashed quirkiness it had previously rebuffed.

With “Captain Fantastic,” Matt Ross and his cast have delivered 80% of a brilliant movie and then 20% of a maddening one. It’s easy to remember the good but hard to forget the bad, leading to one of the most bitter aftertastes in recent memory. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeking out for Mortensen’s tremendous work and highs that are higher than all but a few other films this year have reached.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 8, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Matt Ross
Screenwriter: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Ann Dowd, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
MPAA Rating: R (for language and brief graphic nudity)