Director-writer Matt Ross has crafted a truly fantastic tale of the joy of living in the wild while physically training and home schooling a brood of children, far, far from the madding crowd.
As the beautifully shot (Stéphane Fontaine breathes life into every frame) tale opens, and with the entire clan looking on, eldest son Bo (energetically played by George MacKay) is ferociously into his rite of passage from boy to man. A mercifully deadly slash across the startled throat brings his unwitting prey crashing to the ground where beaming Dad (Viggo Mortensen seems born for the part of Ben) promptly cuts out the heart of the matter, paints his pride and joy on the forehead with blood as badge of honour before Bo ravenously chows down on the raw organ, feeling every inch his father’s son.
With an opening sequence so powerful, if a tad gruesome for a few, high expectations are kindled that the remainder of the production will be just as good. Sadly, Ross veers away from his focus on a few occasions making some wish for one more edit before wide release.
Central to the drama is Ben’s wife and mother of their children, Leslie (Trin Miller). Alas, we soon learn, she’s been institutionalized with clinical depression, finally ending her misery with a knife just effectively as Bo’s. The “announcement” scene is another knockout as the six motherless children (notably Nicholas Hamilton’s incredible rage, playing youngest son and most rebellious of the lot, Rellion) each deal with the grim news in their own way.
Much of the story’s remaining drama revolves around the distraught father of the deceased and Grandpa Jack to the kids. He threatens to have Ben arrested if he dares set foot in the church for the funeral: for him, Ben’s non-conformist lifestyle killed his daughter just as surely as the blade. Frank Langella absolutely nails the fury and rancor against his Grizzly Adams-like son-in-law.
Of course, there would be no movie unless Ben and his family risk being torn apart from one another by attending their mom’s funeral.
From there, the writing starts to unravel in several ways. Being late for the funeral seems out of character with the meticulousness of Ben’s military-type way of running his life and his kids’. Stealing food on the journey just feels wrong (“Freedom Food” is not much of a lesson), just as letting an innocent sheep live to bleat another day belies the years of survival-of-the-fittest training (never mind that if the arrow had been loosed, then theft II would be on the books). Ben displaying the family jewels to surprised passersby appears to have been conjured up solely as the payoff to the earlier wear-clothes-when-eating gag.
But the most alarming misstep of all is the sudden disappearance of fuming grandpa from the script even as the eldest girl is seriously injured while engaged in a bit of familial B&E in Jack’s house and the “Rescue Mom” mission becomes, literally, a grave success.
Captain Fantastic is most certainly worth a peek, but taking on a co-writer might well have plugged the holes and inconsistencies, producing a must-see production instead. JWR