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8 September 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:50pm

Captain Fantastic shows Matt Ross can’t tell the difference between film-making and crowd-pleasing

Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the cast try their best, but they're no match for a script so lacking in nuance.

By Ryan Gilbey

Although Viggo Mortensen has been appearing in films for thirty years, there is little sense that we know this pensive, enigmatic actor. His unembarrassed seriousness and stillness are consistent, but there is no accumulated familiarity. In a culture where stars spill off the screen and into fragrance ads, gossip columns and reality shows, his restraint is almost monastic. Small wonder David Cronenberg called on him three times (in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method) to play unknowable men. In a scene in the first of these, he showed, with only a slight tightening of his features, the calculating coldness beneath his affable exterior. (Word is that he got the look in one take. The director didn’t ask for another.)

Mortensen takes a rare semi-humorous role in the new comedy Captain Fantastic, where he plays his usual integrity slightly for laughs, though the movie asks him to hit some broad notes that are far beneath him. He is Ben Cash, an idealistic father home-schooling his six children in the woods of the Pacific north-west, far from the pernicious influence of modern America. The family hunts its own meat, practises knife-fighting and mountaineering skills, reads Dostoevsky by the campfire and uses phrases such as “Stick it to the man” without irony. They celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday as though it were Christmas.

But something is missing. The children’s mother has been in hospital for months. Word reaches Ben that she has killed herself and that her father (Frank Langella), who blames Ben for dragging her and the children off the grid, has forbidden him from attending the funeral. He and the children pile into their camper van and set off to defy that order.

An unorthodox family heading across America in a rickety van towards an event that they will end up disrupting – ring any bells? Yes, Captain Fantastic is competing for this year’s Little Miss Sunshine prize for heart-warming zaniness. From the director Matt Ross’s manipulative script to Alex Somers’s surging, indie-by-numbers score, the film aspires to comfort rather than challenge, beginning with the decision to make Ben a cuddly left-wing survivalist. A right-wing one, though surely more common, would have cost the film the liberal audience it seeks to flatter. A pricklier, more morally ambiguous patriarch – like Harrison Ford in the similarly themed Mosquito Coast – would forfeit the feel-good factor.

Some scenes, such as the one where the children pretend to be Bible-thumping evan­gelists to throw a cop off the scent, dissolve conflict for easy laughs. And if you need to resort to the old standby of a parent explaining the facts of life to an incredulous child, you’ve really run out of barrel to scrape. Other moments exaggerate the characters’ gaucheness implausibly. Ben’s college-age son, Bo (the fine, bony-faced British actor George MacKay), is so naive that he falls to his knees to propose marriage to the first girl he kisses. Like so much else in the film, you can see the starting point for the scene and the desired pay-off but the bridge between the two hasn’t been built.

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When the family visits the children’s aunt, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), the film sets up an invidious comparison between her offspring and Ben’s, with the former emerging unfavourably. The sequence is milked for every last irony. Harper encourages the kids to play a grisly shoot-’em-up video game seconds after she has berated Ben for telling the children the truth about how his wife died. And when she insists his kids need a proper education, he responds by asking her oldest child what the Bill of Rights is. The boy is flummoxed, but Ben’s youngest child, who has never set foot in school, reels off a comprehensive answer.

It could have been a pleasingly chewy moment if Harper’s children had turned out to be just as smart as Ben’s, or smart in different ways. But Ross isn’t prepared to pull the smug out from under our feet. The cast works diligently to find nuance in the material. They are no match, however, for a director who can’t tell the difference between film-making and crowd-pleasing. 

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers