It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Captain Fantastic," written and directed by "Silicon Valley"'s Matt Ross, presents a family who have retreated from the world into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They are off the grid. They hunt for food. They are self-reliant. It's "Swiss Family Robinson," or that 1970s series of films about "The Wilderness Family." Fresh air. No consumerism. No materialism. Okay, sounds fine, if a little unsustainable. Such utopias need a strong leader, and father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is that. He treats his five kids as though they are military recruits (as well as PhD candidates). Because they are children, and because they are cut off from other influences, they parrot back to him his words, they share his worldview without question. It's Family as Cult. All of this is extremely intriguing, calling to mind films like "The Mosquito Coast," or "Running on Empty," which had similar cloistered family atmospheres, and charismatic controlling (albeit well-meaning) fathers. But "Captain Fantastic" treats the situation (and Ben) so uncritically and so sympathetically that there is a total disconnect between what is actually onscreen and what Ross thinks is onscreen.
When the film opens, the mother of this little clan (Trin Miller's Leslie) has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder, leaving Dad as "captain" of the ship. He puts the kids through fight training, boot camp drills and ushers his oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) into manhood through the ritual of stalking and killing a deer solo. At night they sit around a campfire, the kids reading books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Middlemarch and Dostoevsky. They argue about capitalism and exploited classes, sounding like little robots, Bodevan informing his dad at one point, "I'm not a Trotsky-ist anymore. I'm a Maoist." (This is a family where "Trotsky-ist" is descriptive and "Trotsky-ite" is an insult. It's like it's 1929 in the Soviet Union.) The kids miss their mother and want to know when she's coming back. When Ben gets word that Leslie has killed herself, he informs the kids in blunt plain language.
Leslie's parents blame Ben for everything and forbid him from coming to the funeral. Ben, who has set up his whole life so that he never has to answer to anyone, piles the kids into their gigantic school bus, and heads off to crash the funeral and make sure Leslie gets the Buddhist cremation ceremony she always wanted. It's a long road trip. They pull off occasionally, once to steal supplies from a grocery store (they've run such drills before), and once for an annual family ritual: the celebration of Noam Chomsky Day. What will happen one day if one of the kids decides Noam Chomsky is full of it? Will that even be allowed? The irony here, and it is a terrible one, is that Ben is raising his kids to question the status quo, to not swallow any information wholesale, and yet he creates an environment where questioning his authority is impossible.
The family stops and stays the night with family (Kathryn Hahn's Harper, Steve Zahn's Dave and their two kids), and the culture clash is extreme. Ben's kids don't know anything about pop culture. To win the argument that his kids have been educated just fine without going to school, Ben forces his six-year-old to give an impromptu treatise on the Bill of Rights, the purpose of which is to shame the public-school cousins who have no idea about anything. The child rattling off facts about the Bill of Rights is supposed to be adorable and comedic as well as a "high five" moment for the family. I guess. It looked more like Ben was being a sanctimonious bully towards those who welcomed him into their home.