Captain Fantastic is an unusual and almost philosophical movie about the adventures of a very particular family, the Cashes. The Cashes live in the middle of the woods in the Pacific Northwest, conducting a unique style of life. Ben Cash, aka Captain Fantastic who the title refers to, is an authoritative but enlightened father who decides to raise his children completely out of a consumerist and mediocre society.
He trains them in both body and mind with intensive sessions of physical activity (jogging in the mountains, climbing, fighting, and hunting) and demanding school lessons and tests ranging from quantum physics to literature and philosophy.
Living in the forest, his sons’ minds are totally free of preconceptions and imposed schemes which makes them incredibly brilliant with above-average knowledge. It also makes them “freaks”, as the eldest son Bo tells his father during the movie.
This life choice, made by their father, will not only affect the children’s lives but most of all, their mother’s. Indeed the movie begins while the mother is away from home, because of her sickness. The real event that will change the idyllic scenario of the family’s life in the forest is the mother’s suicide because it forces the family to leave the security and comfort of the woods and venture into the real world, in order to attend her funeral.
The decision to leave causes many changes in the family’s lives. The trip to New Mexico for the mother’s funeral is not just a road trip, it is a mission to rescue the mother and wife from the external world where she is trapped now, and take her back to her home in the woods, where she belongs. All the audience can do is observe the mechanisms that rule the family dynamic and admire their evolution.
One of the amazing characteristics of the movie is its adaptability to be read through different layers of profoundness. Audiences of all ages, from children to adults, can enjoy it. Of course, we can see many intrinsic existential queries such as: what is more important to human knowledge: what is written in books or life experiences? Can you still live and be satisfied without one or the other? Can a life choice so extreme be complete, or are some doubts essential for making the right choices? If you blindly believe in something without questioning it, how can you be sure that you are doing the right thing? At the same time, the grace and the delicate quality of the children make this movie enjoyable when you look at the film as a simple family story with a road trip involved.
The actors are all so talented that it’s not surprising that it took two years of casting sessions in the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia to find the cast. Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances, striking the perfect balance between the severity and hardness of his character and his tender side, marked by his willingness to listen and respect his children’s opinions and his profound love for them. It’s a life choice that he has taken, but it is not driven by egotistical reasons: he truly believes in these ideals and tries to protect his children based on these convictions which can be seen as an act of paternal love. After all, he decides to reflect on and review his own beliefs while trying to adapt to his children’s needs. This is one of his more admirable characteristics.
In particular, the quality of the child actors’ performances is exquisite. They are all very synchronized, complicit and empathetic that one could easily think that they are a real family. After all, the preparation for this movie was colossal: the actors took hunting, archery, martial arts and yoga lessons; some of them even had to learn languages, such as Esperanto! While the actors are certainly dedicated to their work, a lot of credit must be attributed to the director, Matt Ross. He explained in an interview with Collider.com what made the actors work so well together.
“[…] I spent time with every child actor by myself and went through the screenplay with them, their part specifically to make sure they understood everything. I also did that with Viggo to bring up questions and ask questions. […] We did do a comprehensive boot camp where we brought everyone to Washington a couple weeks early. The kids did a wilderness survival and skills camp where they learned to identify edible plants and build shelters and do tracking skills. Everyone was rock climbing every day and musical instrument rehearsal every day. Viggo was learning bagpipes. George MacKay was doing four hours of yoga a day. That’s not just about bringing them into the world of the movie but ultimately really about bonding. To know each other, feel comfortable with each other, begin to look at Viggo as their mentor, father and friend. By the time you start production, everyone’s very comfortable with each other and they like each other and they have a dialogue and they have their own individual relationships that are apart from the film.”
The director is, after all, an actor as well who graduated from The Juilliard School and then acted in various movies (including Twelve Monkeys and American Psycho). Now he is part of the cast for the TV series Silicon Valley. His extensive acting experience may be partly responsible for his sensitivity and ability to connect with the actors during the shooting of the film. He says:
“[…] I love the craft of acting and I love actors so I think they can probably sense that. They also know that I understand what their process is, having done it myself. The thing I come back to over and over again is that for most people who are not analyzing it from a critical point of view, most iconic film moments are actor moments. We show up to commune with another human being and their experience. We don’t show up necessarily to watch a really cool dolly shot. In fact if you’re aware of the dolly shot, then you’re not really in the movie. The thing I’ve always hoped for is to lose myself in the movie and then only afterwards say ‘Wow that was a oner. They never cut.’ I don’t want to notice that when I’m watching. I want to feel the intention of it. […] I can name three or four directors off the top of my head who care deeply about the camera department but also spend a lot of time working with the actors because they understand that we’re watching human beings navigate a fictional story and that’s our way in: the human element of it.”
He is also the screenwriter of his movies, which undoubtedly influenced the manner in which the film was shot. As the director explains, he tried to write “[…] in a very visual and evocative way. Some writers write things that can’t be filmed. […] So they say things like… when they’re describing a character, they’ll say ‘Jim has a secret but we don’t know it yet.’. But how do you film that? Or they’ll say ‘Jim is the coolest fucking guy in the world and everybody knows it.’ But how do you film that? What is that about? So I definitely don’t do that. I try to use the language of cinema as much as possible, which is sound and picture. I try to have the document evoke the same things I’m trying to evoke without cheating. So if there’s a close-up, I won’t write it’s a close up; but I’ll write it in such a way that you know you’re looking at it very closely. Rather than say close up on his eyes you’ll just describe his eyes – which means we must be fairly close, if that makes sense.”
All of these elements, executed perfectly by the director, mix together to create a truly original film within the panorama of American cinema, which renders the film even more fascinating. As the director says, “[…] the foreign audiences are somewhat surprised and happy to find an American film that asks questions about American culture. There’s a certain kind of cultural imperialism that we practice. Our films penetrate every market in the world. You go to any country in the world and their multiplex is filled with our films. […] they’re somewhat charmed and surprised and happy to see an American film reflect on our culture. Because they see other cultures reflect on our culture but they don’t see US culture reflecting on itself in quite the same way.”
His objective was to “ to create something that was psychically hopeful. [...] emotional without being empty. Film is a pretty poor medium to deliver a message. I’m not trying to do that. I’m just trying to ask a lot of questions and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions about whatever meaning might be there or what point there is; but I was conscious of wanting to create something that for a lack of a better word had a positivity and earned that.”
We think he reaches his objective perfectly.