“Captain Fantastic” opens with a magnificent aerial shot of the treetops of the Pacific Northwest, a verdant prelude to the sensory plunge about to take place.
In the next scene, we’re on the ground, observing a deer warily making his way through the foliage; he’s being quietly observed by a young man who, within moments, will have captured the animal and slit its throat. He is then joined by his five brothers and sisters who, like him, have slathered their faces in thick mud.
These young savages aren’t the feral creatures of a prehistoric era. Rather, they’re the sons and daughters of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), the nonconformist who is the film’s title character.
His handsome features camouflaged behind a bushy beard, Ben and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have been rusticating in the woods with his six kids since the birth of their now-teenage son Bodevan (George MacKay), whose slaughter of the deer is part of a primitive coming-of-age ritual. With Leslie in the hospital, George now oversees a free-range brood of physically brave kids who are as comfortable with a boning knife as they are reading “Middlemarch” while wearing a gas mask.
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That last touch is a nod to Ben’s mistrust of an outside world that, by his lights, is fatally commercialized and lazy. Written and directed by Matt Ross, “Captain Fantastic” vividly captures Ben’s overpowering influence on his children, who can’t help but come under his demanding spell: When one of his daughters describes “Lolita” as “interesting,” he lights into her, accusing her of using a “non-word” and insisting that she provide a more sophisticated literary analysis. Later, during the family’s annual celebration of Noam Chomsky Day, he gives his 6-year-old son a copy of “The Joy of Sex.”
It goes without saying that, for all his efforts to instill self-reliance into his kids, Ben can be a sanctimonious pain and prone to overlook the risk his survivalist lessons entail. That dualism lies at the heart of “Captain Fantastic”: Bodevan and his brother Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) begin to chafe against their father’s didacticism, and a family crisis sends the clan on an antic bus trip to New Mexico.
It’s during that journey, punctuated by visits to Ben’s sister and brother-in-law (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, who lives in Central Kentucky) and a stay with his wife’s parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), that Ben and the children realize how alienated they’ve become while living in Walden, and the rest of the world has gone Walmart.
Working with a terrific ensemble of actors, Ross delivers a nuanced, frequently amusing film. The movie provides a superb showcase for Mortensen’s particular gifts as an actor of exceptional physical beauty and sensitivity. As easy as it is for him to slip effortlessly into Ben’s most seductive qualities, he proves just as willing to embrace the character’s darker, more narcissistic side.
“Captain Fantastic” falters as it moves toward an ending that would benefit from tightening. It goes mushy just where a bit of Ben’s ruthlessness would have been welcome. But even with that hiccup, “Captain Fantastic” leaves viewers with the affecting image of a dad whose superpowers lie in simply doing the best that he can.
Rated R for obscenity and brief graphic nudity. 1:59. Kentucky.