Director: Matt Ross
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George McKay
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It’s a shame that the highbrow, home-schooled Cash family – the offbeat heroes at the heart of Captain Fantastic – have banned the use of the adjective ‘interesting,’ because, despite its non-specificity, it’s the perfect word to describe Matt Ross’ drama. In its broadest outline, here’s yet another whimsical Sundance indie involving a family on a road trip, but in its details, this skews away from its Little Miss Sunshine stylings to be far more nuanced, thoughtful and – yes – interesting.
The lure of the open frontier is becoming a running theme in modern American cinema. Long gone are the days of Deliverance, where man has lost touch with the wilderness. In films such as The Kings Of Summer and Night Moves, going off-grid represents a freedom and individuality that doesn’t exist for most people. Ross’ film pushes further than those by embracing the absurdist, kooky extreme but treating it naturalistically – or as naturalistically as you can, when the plot involves kids who are trained to hunt and taught to worship Noam Chomsky.
There’s a through-line of trailer-friendly, counter-cultural comedy involving the Cashes sticking it to the man, by robbing supermarkets or embarrassing a sceptical policeman by pretending to be God botherers. And in its costume design alone, it’s heading for peak (aka sub-Wes Anderson) whimsy. Yet Ross plays his bait-and-switch with a keen awareness of the tightrope he’s walking. At heart, there’s a vein of sadness that comes from the ambiguity of the situation: is this rebellion, or abuse? Like Humbert Humbert in Lolita – namechecked by the literate kids – should we sympathise with the family’s patriarch, Ben, or hate him?
The dice are loaded, of course. Ben is played by Mortensen, Aragorn himself, while his father-in-law nemesis is played by Nixon, aka scowling Langella. Yet the streak of wildness in Mortensen is matched by the subtlety and maturity of his performance. Even as he triumphantly parades the booksmart knowledge of his brood, the arrogance is shot through with self-doubt about the ‘normal’ life his kids are missing. There are genuinely interesting questions here, especially in Trump’s America, about what is most valuable in life, or most useful to a child’s upbringing.
Ross marshals astonishing performance from the six actors (including rising Brit star McKay) cast as Ben’s kids – as irresistible a gang as the movies have introduced in recent years. In a film with more endings than Lord Of The Rings, you can feel Ross’ reluctance to leave them, but it sparks some of the film’s warmest moments – a spine-tingling jambouree performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine and an inspired final shot.
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