MOVIE REVIEW: CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
July 7, 2016
The first word that comes to mind on watching writer/director Matt Ross's CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is "intelligent", quickly followed by "humor" and "heart", culminating in "beautiful storytelling."
Ross captures our attention and imagination not only with the opening titles but with the first frames. A lush, thick wooded forest. Glimmers of sunbeams filter through the massive height of the trees. An audible stillness fills the senses with the sounds of nature. A softly babbling brook. The soft rustle of leaves on a wafting breathe of breeze. The slight hum of a bird's wing. The soft hop of a rabbit or petite step of a deer. And then we see "him." The first sign of man. His pale skin revealing itself under slathers of black mud. And then a deer. Now dead at the hands of man. As others appear, children, rag tag and also dirty and mud covered, approach the teenager who is being handed the still warm heart of the deer to eat by an elder. One is spellbound watching this unfold. Where is this? When is this? Is this the past or a post-apocalyptic present? Who are these people? Shades of Terrence Malick run through your mind. And then exuberance erupts on screen as the boy, Bodevan, is now a man.
Meet the Cash family. Father Ben and six children. Three boys - Bodevan, Nai and Rellian. Three girls - Zaja, Kielyr and Vespyr. Ben and wife Leslie long ago left the trappings of civilization (Leslie was a very successful lawyer), buying a large parcel of land in the Pacific Northwest and moving their family to a world of unconvention, a world built upon survivalist skills and independent thinking and teaching. There are no tv's, no computers, no phones. They sleep in a tipi. They use an outhouse. They have solar power. They live off the land as Native American forefathers did, hunting game, smoking fish, preserving fruits and vegetables which they grow. Everything is done as a family from sitting around the campfire singing songs at night to home school studying quantum physics, Renaissance literature, political theories. Unfortunately, Leslie is not with the family for as we learn, she has been ill and against Ben's better judgment, Leslie has been taken by her parents for proper treatment.
But just as we get comfortable with meeting, understanding and reveling in the Cash family and this seemingly idyllic life, the worst news possible arrives. Leslie is dead. Suffering with severe bipolar disorder, she has taken her own life. The question then becomes whether to go to her funeral or stay in the forest. The decision is made to go when Ben learns that her parents Frank and Abigail are planning a "proper funeral" as opposed to Leslie's written directive to be cremated. And Frank and Abigail are mandating that Ben not be allowed at the funeral, setting the stage for even more conflict between Frank and Ben.
So the family piles in to their trusty converted school bus named "Steve" (outfitted for sleeping, cooking, etc.) and head out on a road trip to stop the funeral and fulfill Leslie's wishes. But it's the road trip that teaches the kids more about life in the "real world" than one ever thought possible while showing the shortcomings of their cloistered communal living, despite their having more book knowledge than most college graduates, and definitely more survival skills. And as we learn, even a family like Ben's comes with plenty of its own secrets and conflict, secrets that threaten his beliefs and way of life, not to mention that of his children.
Writer/director Matt Ross has delivered a strong script which bodes for even stronger emotional resonance thanks in large part to not only his actors, but his visual grammar. With the structure of the Cash family and its lifestyle and beliefs reminiscent of "hippie communes" of the 60's and 70's, Ross adds tinges of a militaristic and almost radical political bent to the familial ideals of Ben Cash that strengthens the interest in the characters. Finding a perfect balance in creating a world where a family exists in harmony with nature while still allowing for exploration, growth and curiosity beyond that is welcoming and eye-opening. The issues Ross presents within the framework of the story via both the Cash family and Leslie's family, are issues that plague us today, much of which is playing out on the political front now via Bernie Sanders politics and followers. But focusing on one family is where Ross hits his resonant home run.
Ross keeps us questioning, delivering breadcrumbs as to the family's history, how they came to live in the forest and develop this survivalist lifestyle, how the relationship between Ben and his in-laws fractured to such a degree for them to mandate he not be at his own wife's funeral. He also has us and Ben himself, questioning Ben and his motives and the cause and effect of how life played out. Did Ben cause Leslie's illness? Did he mandate this tough forest life and push her over the edge mentally? And thanks to the dichotomy produced by way of visuals (and a few well placed plot points), he makes us wonder and think. And as much as we embrace the Cash family and their way of living, troubling are scenes like robbing a grocery store via a con and teaching kids it's okay to do that.
Particularly wonderful is how Ross allows each of the kids' personalities to shine through, along with their respective relationships with their father. We see them run and play like children, yet we see and hear questioning in blind obedience and the essentially dictatorial lifestyle Ben has imposed. For all of his progressive self-sufficient thinking, we also see his blindness to all but his way and his thinking, i.e., he doesn't see the forest for the trees. And through it all, as Ben, Viggo Mortensen is taking us down the rabbit hole with him, making us as an audience question more and more as to his motivations, his beliefs and even his sanity. He is the one that keeps us on our toes questioning his mindset, his motives and drawing us in every deeper into this world with unparalleled conviction. Interesting is the level of collaboration Mortensen brought to this production in particular. Always known for dedication to a role and the cinematic process, with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC Mortensen was adamant about authenticity and credibility. While Ross was already working with production designer Russell Barnes on the family compound, Mortensen "planted the garden and he built the garden, tended the garden." Many of the books and props of the Cash family were even supplied by Mortensen.
George MacKay is turning out to be a young actor who has already exceeded the potential first seen in earlier films like "Hunky Dory" and "How I Live Now." The conviction he brings to the role of Bodevan - with minimal dialogue, yet powerful on recitations - soars with facial expressiveness and nuance. Standout performance.
When it comes to casting the Cash kids, Ross knocks it out of the park. Admitting their casting was difficult, especially since "some kids I cast weren't the best at delivering a performance, but I wasn't really looking for that. It was trying to match a kid's spirit to the spirit of the character and you're hoping to create an environment where that spirit can flourish and that can come out."
Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell are beyond cute and adorable as Zaja and Nai, respectively, and both steal your heart and every scene they are in. In speaking with Matt Ross, it's easy to see his affection for the kids and especially Shree. "If you meet Shree, she's such a pisser. She's such a kid and she has that 'thing' when she walks in the room. So you try to harness that because I think that's really appropriate for Zaja. And then the logistical challenge of getting her to say all that dialogue. She had more dialogue than anyone in the movie but for Viggo."
"Oculus" fans will recognize Annalise Brasso and in seeing her here as Vespyr shows her continuing growth as an actress. She is an emotional dynamo who commands the screen with both her smile and gritty determination.
As Jack and Abigail, respectively, Frank Langella's rational calm is welcoming and the grandmotherly love Ann Dowd exudes just warms the heart. You know that especially with the little kids, they are loving the attention and pure love from grandma, making their decisions and loyalties.
Standout are some telling scenes that truly serve as exposition, answering so many of the questions that have been building while defining the two family camps at odds with the belief systems of each, are those with Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn as Ben's sister Harper and her husband Dave. A particularly effective scene is that with Ben with his family at the dinner table with Harper and Dave and their kids. Emotional, emotionally frustrating (Hahn soars with her meltdown) yet utterly satisfying with clarity.
As wonderful as CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is, there are some structural story problems, most notably in the final act of the film, as multiple implausibilities come to light that are not in sync with the groundwork earlier laid. (To reveal the specifics here would be spoilers.)
Stephane Fontaine's cinematography is quite beautiful, telling a story in its own right. So vivid and real in the forest, and equally so on the bus trip but in the latter, Fontaine focuses the lens on "Americana" - open country, wheat fields, canyons, etc., ever widening the frame, yet tempering and softening the images with less life when Ben and family are encountering other people. Described by director Ross as having "an organic way of working", Fontaine is an intuitive storyteller, delivering a luminous visual palette.
Reteaming with editor Joseph Krings with whom Ross worked on an earlier short, Krings' pacing is well suited to the story and the contrasting "lifestyles" at play.
Icing on the cake is costumer Courtney Hoffman who "gets it" when it comes to the Cash family.
Self-described as a "treasurer hunter" when it comes to costuming, with CAPTAIN FANTASTIC her design eye is perfection. Seeing the characters are a family off the grid, Hoffman used her own ingenuity in designing the children's clothes by celebrating hand me downs. We see one of the girls wearing a jacket with the name "Bodevan" on it, while with most other clothing, there are hand-stitched patchworks such as where a sleeve was taken from the blouse of one sibling's garment to lengthen the shorts of another. And you can see the stitching on the garments, telling us the kids (or mom) were hand-crafting. The detail is phenomenal. Clever and inventive. t was Hoffman's idea for Ben's red tuxedo at the funeral while her vision makes a climactic family dance sequence take on the ethereal loveliness of dancing sprites or nymphs.
The philosophical aspects of CAPTAIN FANTASTIC drive the story from beginning to end, but it's the family and their growth individually and as a whole that is the connective tissue with the audience, making each of us ask (or should make us ask), do we/would we/could we have such conviction to live a life like Ben but have enough forgiveness of self and sensibility to compromise for the good of others.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is just that. Fantastic.
Written and Directed by Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn