Captain Fantastic dir. Matt Ross. Winner of Cannes Un Certain Regard 2016
This extraordinary film sets in sharp opposition two deep-rooted American dreams. One of wealth and privileged entrenchment in society, the other, a life of survival in the wild. On the wild side is the compelling Viggo Mortensen, who plays ironically named Ben Cash, the father who is pack leader to six children. He has brought them to a peak of physical and mental resilience through a tough daily training in survival skills, (including killing animals to eat) along with a broad home education in the arts and politics, of the ‘subversive’ kind, of course. He is a flawed hero, his behaviour often gratuitously provocative and morally troubling. The culture clash is brought into focus through two alpha males: Cash and his rich, conventional father-in-law who hunts on the weekends. It’s a relentless head-butting Oedipal conflict, from which neither comes unscathed. Negotiation is just not on the radar. This is standard in Hollywood films, but Ross eludes cliché. There’s a psychological depth and subtlety to his portrayal of two equally obsessive, ethically puritanical men whose shared grief makes them brittle, brutal and distant.
Visually the film is highly wrought and never self indulgent, despite moments of heightened reality. There are a couple of ‘reading round the fire’ scenes of which my companion, Helen Grant, said ‘ it’s like a scene from a Toast catalogue’. It sounds flippant, but with her usual acuity she’d spotted a device which, by referencing artifice, points to the improbability of a sustainable Utopia. Ross also uses this slight distancing from reality to bring the status of myth to the story. It’s a complex film which stirs up the silt around how we live, and how we deal with death and loss. Its especial insight lies in the link made between Cash’s obsessive desire to prove his way of life superior, and his ill-fated attempt to mend his wife’s sanity. The performances are superb. See it if you can. It’s terrific.