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Into and out of the woods – a review of Captain Fantastic

Supermarkets, strip malls, smart phones, school – for many, such are the unexceptional features of daily life. And though some people may occasionally experience dissatisfaction with the society in which these things have become commonplace, to genuinely reject any of them would seem odd, laughably idealistic, or dangerously antisocial. Yet, normal is a matter of perspective. Albeit one from which it can be difficult to escape, even when confronted with a viewpoint that sees normal as distinctly undesirable. For, intentionally or not, a sort of societal alchemy takes place wherein that which is normal is transmuted into a convincing semblance of the good. Matt Ross’s film Captain Fantastic looks at the standard fare of contemporary American life through the eyes of a father, and his children, who refuse to confuse the normal life with the good life.

The result is a jarring film that is well worth seeing.

Amidst the mountains and trees of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is bringing up his six children in a distinctly unorthodox fashion. There is not a smartphone in sight as the members of the Cash clan hunt, endure intense physical “training,” play music around the camp fire, and read. Ben is equal parts drill sergeant, professor, and father as he continually prods his children to think critically about what they are learning even as his offspring deride one another whenever it seems that one is simply parroting Ben. Though the setting is lushly green and free of brand names – it is ultimately a way of life that has more to do with ideals than being idyllic. Yet when Leslie, the family’s matriarch – who is being treated at a hospital for mental illness – commits suicide it forces the Cash family to leave the isolation of the woods in order to attend her funeral; a funeral which is being shaped according to the desires of Leslie’s father and not her own. Piling into an old school bus named Steve, the Cash family drives to New Mexico and along the way confronts the alien (to them) world of diner food, bank lobbies, supermarkets, strip malls, as well as the foreign behaviors of normal folk. And though the regular world appears freakish to the Cash family they are not able to ignore the fact that from the perspective of those who live in that world, they might actually be the freaks. And when Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella) accuses Ben of endangering the lives of the Cash children, Ben cannot deny that Jack might actually have a point. What Captain Fantastic makes abundantly clear is that there is actually nothing simple about trying to live the simple life.

Captain Fantastic is about parents trying (and not necessarily succeeding) to prepare their children for the world, it is about the compromises that contemporary society asks people to make (and those who refuse to make such compromises), and though the film’s tagline reads:

“he prepared them for everything except the outside world”

it would actually be more fitting had the film taken as its tagline Jiddu Krishnamurti’s comment:

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Granted, one of the finest aspects of Captain Fantastic is that it avoids the temptation to make a definitive diagnosis or to prescribe a panacea.

[brief digression]

As a drama (albeit, one with some humorous moments) Captain Fantastic is not the type of movie that relies on significant twists or shocking revelations. Nevertheless, over the course of the remainder of this review, aspects of the film (including the ending) will be mulled over. In other words – spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned if you care about that type of thing.

[digression ends]

During one particularly memorable exchange Ben asks his daughter Kielyr (Samantha Isler) what she thinks of the book she’s reading – and when she replies that it is “interesting” she endures a torrent of jeers and boos from her siblings telling her that “interesting” is a meaningless word. “Interesting,” according to the Cash family philosophy, is the type of term people use to get out of actually having to think critically and express a real opinion. And thus, it would be the height of irresponsibility to describe Captain Fantastic as an “interesting” film. Rather it is a rare film that provides a real consideration (to steal a formulation from Lewis Mumford) of the difference between the “good life” and the “goods life.” It avoids parochial moralizing, simplistic judgments, apocalyptic romanticism, and the appeal of compassionate consumerism. It is a film featuring characters who take ideas seriously, characters who take their relationship to those ideas seriously, and recognizes that if you take an idea seriously it means recognizing the complexity of ideas. Thus, it may produce a laugh from the audience when Ben’s oldest son Bo (George MacKay) snaps back at his father that he is no longer a Trotskyist, rather he is now a Maoist, but the laugh is not a result of humor but of surprise; Bo means it. And the audience can feel certain that this is a decision which Bo has come to only after considerable contemplation. Yes, the Cash children are strange and Ben is raising them in line with a particular ideology – but through the eyes of the Cash family the audience is forced to see the “normal” cousins of the Cash kids as equally strange and their cousins’ parents as equally guilty of raising their children in line with a particular ideology (even if it is the dominant one).

Of course, there are moments of the film where the Cash family seems rather cartoonish: the family celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday (they refer to him as “Uncle Noam”), Ben denounces Christianity while standing in front of his wife’s coffin in a church (she was a Buddhist), Bo proposes to the first girl he kisses, the children speak to each other in Esperanto, Ben embarrasses his in-laws by showing that his 8-year-old daughter has a richer understanding of the Bill of Rights than their teenage sons. And yet the Cash family never appear as the romantic denizens of a Whole Foods or REI ad, while they are simultaneously never reduced into the type of hippie/anarcho-punk/farmerss market fools that periodically appear in mass culture in order to be mocked. You can laugh at the Cash family, but Captain Fantastic is animated by a subtle suggestion that the joke’s really on us – not them. Bo is genuinely torn about whether or not he should go off to college (in the film he receives acceptances to several Ivy league schools), Zaja (Shree Crooks) really does have her own opinions about the meaning of the Bill of Rights, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) is sincere in his frustration about the strangeness of his upbringing, Vespyr (Annalise Besso) really does get seriously hurt by following her father’s instructions, and Ben recognizes that he might really be endangering his children. Each of the Cash children (particularly the elder four) are shown so clearly wrestling with the strictures of their lives that it is difficult to simply see them as their father’s mindless foot soldiers. Indeed, when the Cash children run away from their grandparents’ palatial estate to chase after Ben their qualms with their grandparents’ home seems sincere. It is tempting to think that Ben’s views are challenged by his confrontation with Jack – who does threaten to take legal action to take the children away – but in the end it is not really Jack who changes Ben’s mind. Rather, Ben’s mind is changed by his own children.

The film ends not with the family returning to the woods but with the Cash clan going to the airport to send Bo off on a trip. And after Bo walks off, the family still does not return to the woods, instead they are shown in a quaint country home surrounded by lush gardens and with Steve (the bus) turned into a chicken coop. Ben prepares bag lunches for his brood and warns them that the school bus is coming as the children eat breakfast around the communal table. And though there are no smart phones at the table and no signs of computers or television sets in the home – Captain Fantastic ends with Ben moving his family from “off-the-grid” to a space that could best be described as “at-the-edge-of-the-grid.”

With Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortenson has returned to the role of “apocalypse dad” – a role he had previously played in the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. Yet, as Ben, Mortenson is not playing the father shepherding his child through the post-apocalyptic deathscape, instead he’s trying to prepare his children to survive in such a setting. Were the father in The Road really the father from Captain Fantastic than he probably would have been doing better – granted, one can just as well offer the counter that what the blighted world of The Road revealed is that it might not really be worthwhile living long enough to see the what comes after the apocalypse. Though Captain Fantastic does not emphasize impending doom it is still a matter that lurks in the background. After all, Ben repeatedly refers to the physical conditioning exercises he has his children complete as “training,” but the film never really answers the question: “training for what?” Training for survival in the woods? Training so that his children will be okay if they get lost in those woods? Training to survive outside of society? It is never particularly clear. When Ben argues with his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and his brother-in-law Dave (Steve Zahn) about the way he’s raising his children and they tell him that the Cash kids need to be in school, Ben counters that he is teaching them more useful things (like how to hunt, how to navigate by the stars, etc…) and lurking in the background of this conversation seems to be a sense on Ben’s part that Harper and Dave’s world might not have all that much time left. Yet, importantly, Captain Fantastic does not dwell on a coming collapse, and it certainly doesn’t romanticize it either, Ben’s daughter Zaja may have a proclivity for wearing a gas mask but this seems to be more of an amusing costume choice than an overt comment. Nevertheless, should Harper or Dave or their two standard suburban sons find their world shaken up it’s easy to imagine them pining for some of the Cash family’s “training.” Indeed, if things in the world were to start seriously falling apart one can easily imagine all those who criticized Ben racing to get to him.

And thus Matt Ross’s film manages to touch upon a particularly thorny and difficult topic, one that is uncomfortable to think seriously about: what do you do when you think that things probably won’t work out? Just asking this question is bound to get one tarred as a cynic, a killjoy, a pessimist or as a reactionary. And though, at the present moment, one can get away with a certain amount of doom saying regarding the prospect of a certain person being elected President – if one instead points to the increasingly panicked warnings regarding climate change one is scolded for fear mongering. In some ways Captain Fantastic appears as a sort of retort to works like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – the Cash family (or at least Ben) refuses to believe that society’s problems can be solved merely by recycling or considerate consumption, while Ben places more faith in individual “training” than in the hopes that governmental action will save the day before it’s too late. Or, to put it another way, the Cash family in Captain Fantastic takes the warning of works like Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future seriously – if you really think that supermarkets won’t be “normal” forever you should probably learn to grow your own food, and if you think GPS won’t always be there you should learn to navigate by the stars. It is not totally clear what the Cash family is getting ready for, but whatever it is they sure seem like they’re going to be ready. Of course, the Cash children do not appear particularly ready to be normal drones in technological society – but the film suggests that such a type of normalcy should not be aspired to. Frankly, this matter is one of the reasons why it seems rather odd that the Cash family so loves Noam Chomsky. This isn’t meant as a critique of Chomsky, but given the family’s “return to nature” life-style and their rejection of the accoutrements of high-tech society it seems as though it would have been more fitting had they instead chosen to lionize somebody who had emphasized “appropriate” or “convivial” tools along with a simpler lifestyle – somebody like E.F. Schumacher or Ivan Illich. Granted a case could certainly be made that Chomsky was chosen because his name would be more widely recognized. Truth be told were it not for the Cash family’s repeated mocking of organized religion it would be easy to imagine Ben approvingly citing Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. After all, Pope Francis could easily have been describing the Cash family when he wrote:

“It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.” (Francis, no. 108)

Indeed, much of Pope Francis’s call for a return to a simpler way of living that seeks “the good life” over the “goods life” seems manifested in the Cash family. Yet, to return to the earlier point, one of the issues that Captain Fantastic raises so disturbingly is that of what we are meant to do with our beliefs. What do you do if, like Ben, you find much of contemporary society distasteful? Do you do what Ben and Leslie did and flee to the woods?

To be frank, most of us know the answer to this question (and I fully include myself here): we make compromises. Sometimes we think about these compromises and sometimes we don’t, sometimes we struggle with them and sometimes we don’t, sometimes we spend hours agonizing over them and sometimes we don’t think about them at all. We drive too much, we leave the lights on, we throw away things that are recyclable, we trade in still working high-tech devices for newer models, we eat garbage that we know is terrible for us, we throw away perfectly good food, and we make convenient justifications for our actions. Some of us may occasionally joke about wanting to run away and live in the woods, but the vast majority of us don’t do that – and so, we make compromises. And Captain Fantastic is a film that has a lot to do with compromises. Most of the film shows Ben to be fairly uncompromising in his beliefs, even to the point of absurdity – he would rather have his children steal produce from a supermarket than let them eat hotdogs at a diner. Yet, as was suggested earlier, one’s perception of normalcy can set the boundaries for how one defines compromises: for Harper and Dave the compromise they make is “no smart phones at the dinner table,” for Jack the compromise is “my way or I’m calling the police,” and for Ben and Leslie they knew that they were compromising their relationships with their families in order to not compromise their beliefs. Though in the end Ben is willing to compromise those ideals in order to keep his children. And though the film ends with Ben having made a significant compromise (his family has moved out of the woods and his kids are going to school) the shots of the family’s final abode demonstrate that there are still some compromises Ben is not willing to make – there’s nothing high-tech in sight.

There is a certain extent to which Captain Fantastic ends on an unsatisfactory note, with Ben trading in his full counter-cultural ways in order to live the sort of homespun crafty lifestyle that could have a stall at the farmers’ market and a popular Instagram account. Yet one of the things that Captain Fantastic powerfully reveals is the way in which mocking comments such as the ones in the previous sentence actually function to police the boundaries of normalcy. For better or worse, Ben Cash is portrayed as a man who knows what he is, knows what he believes, knows why he believes it, and knows what it means to live in accordance with those beliefs. Yes, the members of the Cash family are strangers in our contemporary technological society, but at least they are not strangers to themselves.

Captain Fantastic is a troubling film – one that raises big uncomfortable questions and refuses to provide soothing answers. It is a film that takes ideas seriously, and it deserves to be taken seriously.


More Reviews…

Black Mirror


The Glass Cage

Low-Power to the People

Not So Fast


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

8 comments on “Into and out of the woods – a review of Captain Fantastic

  1. Pingback: Dentro y fuera del bosque – una revisión de Captain Fantastic | blog no oficial

  2. blognooficial
    November 2, 2016

    Hi, I translated this post into spanish, is here, I added a comment about something that caught my attention,the behavior of Ben´s children when the police get on the bus (Steve) on the road.

    I found another mportant item of children´s training!

  3. doughill50
    January 9, 2017

    Hey Zack,

    Going through old emails today and saw this.

    Just caught up with Captain Fantastic this weekend on On Demand. Loved it, for the reasons you cite, including the balanced characters (Viggo’s character neither all-good nor all-bad; Frank Langella’s character showing real concern for his grandkids’ welfare, etc.), the value of seeing “normal” society through the family’s eyes, etc. So many priceless scenes

  4. Pingback: Don’t like what you see? – A review of Season Three of Black Mirror | LibrarianShipwreck

  5. Pingback: The The Courage to be Afraid – a review of Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?” | LibrarianShipwreck

  6. Pingback: “No one wants to see disaster coming, but those who look, do.” – A Review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” | LibrarianShipwreck

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