Review: Captain Fantastic – beyond convention and conformity

Mark Winter looks back at his favourite film of the year, the counter-cultural Captain Fantastic.

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Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross/Bleecker Street)

From the very first shot of this movie, we enter a world outside the city, beyond convention and conformity.

A deer moves timidly through a clearing in the forest. The camera pans to reveal an eye, then another, and then a knife which flashes from the undergrowth. George Mackay’s character claims a life, and his father, Viggo Mortensen, declares him a man.

Ben Cash has moved with his wife Leslie and their six children deep into the wilderness. The aim? To escape a toxic consumerism which would be all too familiar to the Frankfurt School, and to carve a life from the natural world, in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.

The six children have been trained to survive against all odds. Cash’s character explains to their grandparents that they have the bodies of elite athletes; their minds are trained to question and challenge the status quo. We witness them scaling a sheer cliff-face in torrential rain, and relaxing in the evening with a selection of books from the canon. They read the classics, and avoid the distractions of TV and the internet. They debate Nabokov and Marxism, hunt for their own food, and make their own music.

A plot device sees the family take a road trip through the heart of America, and we see TV ads, computer games and shopping malls through their critical lens. There are laugh-out-loud scenes when the bus they travel on stops so that they can celebrate Chomsky Day (Cash is virulently opposed to organised religion), and raid a supermarket. To them, Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, not a sportswear brand.

This is a film which revels in the counter-culture, and pokes a sharp stick at common sense, taken-for-granted everyday life. It then moves onto deeper terrain to examine and question Cash’s life choices. Is Cash a dangerous and manipulative God-figure who has created freaks out of his offspring, or a charismatic, eccentric rebel with the courage to live out his convictions? What does it cost us to escape capital and alienation, religion and shopping, when we do so in isolation from humanity?

This is indie anarchy, and a tonic for the soul. As a footnote, the director is a product of the communes of northern California. And it turns out that Viggo Mortensen is a critic of corporate America, and has sported a T-shirt with the slogan, “No more blood for oil”. Mortensen is quoted as stating that George Bush will go down in history as the “Sauron of Presidents”. So Aragorn from Lord of the Rings is a Commie? Who knew?

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