Anti-establishment Ben Cash, played by the brilliant Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, The Road), leads a self-sufficient life in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with his six children, having created his own paradise. He has strong views against modern American society, which are absorbed by the young minds around him and repeated in phrases like, ‘Stick it to the man, power to the people’. Their days consist of military-style training sessions, involving hunting and fitness, and studying the likes of Dostoevsky, T.S Eliot, and Noam Chomsky, rounded off by evenings playing music and dancing by an open fire. Jonsi collaborator (the Icelandic vocalist of Sigur Ros), Alex Somers, creates a majestic score to complement the stunning cinematography and moving emotional journey Captain Fantastic will take you on.
The heavy absence of the children’s mother is addressed when Cash sets off to find out how his wife Leslie is doing in hospital. Upon the sudden discovery of her death, Leslie’s bitter father blames Ben for his daughter’s death, warning him not to attend the funeral. The anti-authority streak in Ben is inflamed. Their mission: to attend the funeral, which propels the plot forward as they are forced to confront American society. Director, Matt Ross, points to all the flaws and hypocrisies of living in one of the most dominant and influential countries on the world stage in a witty and self-deprecating manner: ‘Why is everyone ill?’ one of the children innocently asks as the camera pans across bulging stomachs and oversized backsides. The viewer analyses society through the eyes of these seven outsiders, who have never even heard of Cola, that is to say, ‘poisoned water’. The children look on in horror as they spend the evening with their cousins playing video games, full of mindless violence. The film even manages to criticise education as an institution where children are often left indifferent and unenthused, unlike Cash’s aim to make philosophers of his children by home-schooling them.
However, the clash between Cash’s methods of parenting with his sister in law’s family exposes the weaknesses in both parties, as no matter how much of a vital and inspiring teacher Cash is to his children, he still represents a threat to their physical and mental wellbeing. He buys them hunting knives as presents and inhibits their social development as they nothing of the world ‘unless it comes out of book’. The reference to Nabokov’s Lolita, is a helpful comparison to the morally corrupt yet persuasive narrator of the novel to the character of Cash, who we identify strongly with thanks to the seductive power of cinematic narration. The film explores the notion that a relationship of empathy with the central character can warp the viewer’s sense of morality, as the film also hints at the idea that his wife, who was suffering from mental illnesses, died early because of Cash’s obstinate desire to remain living in the woods.
Yet the opening sequence is perhaps the only moment the viewer feels a lack of empathy towards Cash’s unconventional parenting methods, as he carves the equation of manhood with murder into his children’s philosophies. Cash’s eldest son, who is played by the soulful George MacKay, is forced to eat the heart of a deer that he has just hunted, in a graphic and repulsive opening scene. The subsequent euphoric Icelandic music seem ill fitted, and inadvertently draws attention to the director’s conscious act of manipulating the viewer to feel a certain way. Yet as Cash’s character development evolves, the unique bond he has with his children counterbalances any further sense of distrust towards his parenting.
Indeed, it is Cash who actively recognises his flaws in parenthood, and realises their paradisiacal plan was ultimately a ‘beautiful mistake’. However, the film marvellously curbs our criticisms towards Cash, as it is the character himself who comes to the conclusion that a balance must be found in life.