September 2016

Arts & Letters

Off the grid

By Luke Davies
Matt Ross’ ‘Captain Fantastic’ is a portrait of a family in the wilderness

The opening moments of Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic (in national release 8 September) introduce us to the rugged, pine-forested world of an ideal – or idealised – family living far off the grid in the woods of Washington State. The father, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), rules over his tough, inquisitive, unfettered brood of youngsters: Nai (Charlie Shotwell), Zaja (Shree Crooks), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Bodevan (George MacKay). They range in age from around five to 17.

Ben, a mix of left-wing, grow-your-own eco-idealist and right-wing, anti-big-government survivalist, runs his family as a kind of finishing school for heroic free-thinkers of the future. By day, the family embark on military-style training runs or climb perilous rock faces in the rain. In the opening scenes, Bodevan, or Bo, the eldest son, hunts and kills a deer with a knife, his siblings all in tow in mud camouflage. (Ben, in the heart-eating ceremony that follows: “Today, the boy is dead. And in his place is a man.”) By night, the tribe read books by firelight – The Brothers Karamazov, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Middlemarch, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe – while Ben grills them on their progress. (“Are you having any problem with quantum entanglement? Planck length versus Planck time?”)

So far, so Swiss Family Libertarian. It seems for an instant an idyllic life, for all its latent extremism. But all is not entirely well. The kids are happy and wild, but they’re all so earnest. “I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind,” says little Nai to one of his big sisters. It’s a sweet, funny moment, but it masks a deeper truth: so great is the children’s desire to please their father, their compound feels at times like a mini police state. Ross’ skill, in setting up the movie’s premise, is to make the children’s circumstances odd enough, compelling enough, fun enough to watch, so that at first we don’t feel the incipient unease. Collecting the mail at the nearest outpost of civilisation, a general store, Bo learns he’s been accepted into Yale, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other illustrious institutions. That’s going to be news to Ben, for whom even something as bourgeois as sitting a college entrance exam is anathema. For now, Bo is going to keep the news a secret.

There’s a missing part here. “Why does Mommy have to be gone so long?” asks one of the little girls. “Mom needs to be in the hospital right now,” says Ben, going on to explain her mental illness in a neutral technical language, referencing serotonin imbalances and appropriate treatment environments. He’s at times a harsh and unforgiving father, but he never shields the kids from the answers to any of their questions, and he tries to respond to each with equal honesty – even if it’s little Nai asking, with great perplexity, about the vagina’s multiple functions.

The sense of the family’s isolation – curiously cloistered, curiously alive – is so vividly rendered that 20 minutes in you are positively willing the film to burst out of its boundaries – for some inevitable road trip into the wider world to unfold. So when circumstances arise, and the family is forced to travel in the old hippy bus for a presumably unpleasant interaction with Ben’s parents-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail (Ann Dowd), we get the release we’ve been itching for, and the film becomes a fish-out-of-water tale. Through the Cash family’s eyes we’ll get to see a surreal, bloated, unwell America. The film is at times tonally reminiscent of that early ’70s American “auteur” cinema (Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and The Last Detail) that aestheticised the faded detritus of small-town commercialism to portray the contemporary world as a repository of sadness.

The family’s isolated existence in the Washington forest seems like solitude in name only – it’s dense, complex and filled with love. Meanwhile, the frenzied infrastructure of the wider world, the freeways and malls, is where they’re going to run into what Baudrillard called the “blank solitude” of the American heartland. “What’s wrong with everyone?” asks one of the children, gazing around him at people “fat like hippos” going about their day. “Are they sick?” Elsewhere, they go to a diner – the children’s first time in such a place. “What’s cola?” asks one of them. “Poison water,” says Ben, before gathering them up and leaving. “There’s no actual food on this menu.”

During their travels across the interior, Ben gives a running commentary on the “state of the nation”. “Most of our fellow citizens engage in frenzied shopping as their primary form of social interaction,” he says, as the bus whizzes along the freeway. By the roadside, the family celebrates Noam Chomsky Day, and Ben gives them gifts. (The children all love hunting knives.) Bo, whose uptightness might largely be because he knows he’ll fly the coop soon but not the details of how or when this might happen, can go with the flow. But his little brother Rellian, who’s on the cusp of becoming a teenager, is a more pent-up brooder. “What kind of crazy person celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday like it’s some kind of official holiday?” he explodes. “Why can’t we celebrate Christmas like the rest of the entire world?” The issue is not Christmas – or Noam Chomsky. But Rellian is beginning to realise something: that out in the “real” world – and though we as an audience get the sense that the Cash children are going to turn into mighty interesting adults – these kids essentially have no social, or, rather, cultural, skills.

On the way to New Mexico, the clan drops in on Ben’s sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), and her husband, Dave (Steve Zahn), and their two young sons. The children, a little freaked out after watching their cousins play violent video games, are relieved to sleep under the stars in the backyard. “They need to go to school,” says a concerned Harper in the morning. “They need to learn about the world.” But Ben’s idea of what it might mean to “learn” is a little different from his sister’s.

Things will come to a head in New Mexico, and Ross (better known as an actor – he’s the villainous and hilarious tech billionaire Gavin Belson in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley) will steer the film to where it has always been going. It’s not an essay on a fallen consumerist America, though that is certainly a part of its incidental texture. Rather, it’s the tale of a man whose idealism is a form of rigid authoritarianism that may well be doing his loved ones more harm than good – “You made us freaks!” Bo shouts at him at one point – and who must embrace his own vulnerabilities, his “negative capability”, in order to change his ways.

In this sense, Captain Fantastic operates as a very simple fable. A man has a dream. The dream starts to fracture and disintegrate because of a series of logistical problems: it buckles under the weight of the universe. Then the integrity of the underpinning philosophy changes: the man realises that his starting premise was wrong.

One criticism of the film, if viewed in this way, is that it shifts its point of view without discipline. In the forest, the interrelations between Ben and his six children feel fully rounded, and as an ensemble cast, with child actors, the feat is dazzling. Later, as the Cash clan rub up against the outside world, there are moments where we feel both realms as being populated more with undifferentiated blocks of “people”: we see the Cash family from the perspective of the straight world where previously we had always been with them, looking out at it.

But Mortensen is an actor who can play gentle and open at almost the same instant he’s rigid and closed, and who gives, to most films he’s in, moments that are compelling even when delivered with minimalism. (It’s a wonderful bonus to watch him in complex interplay with the very fine Frank Langella, here not playing the clichéd, conservative father-in-law you’d expect in a broader film.) It’s a nuanced arc, Ben’s journey towards a kind of release. Mortensen’s skill is to pull the film through its occasional glitches to its deeper satisfactions, so that we forgive the former and embrace the latter.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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