This is a critical review of the movie captain fantastic, about the meaning of its content.
Captain Fantastic depicts a family led by Ben (Viggo Mortensen), that grows together in an isolated North Pacific forest.
Ben believes his children should be raised away from the noise of capitalist civilization. Instead of drinking soda and playing video games, Ben’s children learn how to hunt and rock scale and read Dostoyevsky and Marx. They learn everything they know from Ben’s brain and from the books they read. In fact, as the eldest son, Bo, secretly gets into America’s best universities and expresses the desire of leaving the forest, he tells his father that “unless it comes out of a book, I don’t know anything!!
The movie portrays that Ben’s family raising experiment is an attempt to mimic the ideas of human formation depicted in Plato’s Republic.
The suicide of Leslie, Ben’s wife and the mother of their children, creates tumult within the family, and Ben must face whether he will expose his children to urban civilization and travel to their mother’s funeral.
The movie drives through a clash of values, the values of an alternative, secular humanist take on childrearing, and more conservative/traditional values about the value of children playing and developing emotionally.
Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Ben’s philosophy is dangerous to his children, and that it was in part the reason why Leslie took her own life (I say ‘in part’ because Leslie had a severe case of bipolar disorder as well).
Leslie’s father pursues the idea of seeking custody of Ben’s children. The movie takes you to a point where Ben seems to have, perhaps not a moment of conversion, but a moment of realizing that his views and philosophy may actually have been detrimental to the well-being of his children the whole time, and he decides not to further ruin their lives and leaves them to the custody of their grandparents. Or so we think.
The film’s emotional climax, I believe, is when Ben drives away in the family bus (nicknamed Steve), having left the children behind. Here Viggo Mortensen’s performance is brilliant. He convincingly portrays sincere contrition and frustration over how he may have been f”#%ing up the lives of his children and have been the cause of Leslie’s suicide. As he man’s the steering wheel, Mortensen cries a convincing cry, and hits the audience with emotion as he looks through the rear-view mirror at an empty bus that was once full of his six children.
The film, I believe, could have ended here. It perhaps may have been a little painful, but it would seem correct. In principle, the film, and Matt Ross (its director) would be confessing the futility of raising children strictly on panacea-like secular humanist ideals of human development. A father’s contrition over having practiced this while raising his children, and the heroism and altruism of leaving his children to what he believes will be a better future, would seem like a fitting ending to a film and would strike a blow to secular humanism.
There may have been several methodological errors with trying to end the film there, however, including the fact that it was not clear that his father-in-law’s affluence would be the best way of raising the children either, even though it would, perhaps on the whole, be better.
In any case, the film does not end there.
Instead, Ben’s moving moments of contrition are interrupted prematurely. As he is outside of some city whatever, nurturing a fire, his children magically pop up from under the bus and emerge to console their father. Yes, during this moment of supposed contrition and detachment, the children are in a basement compartment of the bus, and they eventually come out, to the surprise of their father.
Warmth and tenderness ensue. One of the kids apologizes to Ben for having said “I hate you,” clarifying that he, in fact, does not hate his father.
But here is when everything gets ruined. All the pathos and the greatness of Mortensen’s moment of remorse are lost. Why?
Well, a plan they had to cremate Leslie, upon her request in her last will, gets resurrected at the children’s behest in this moment of father-children reconciliation. The problem is, Leslie has already had a Catholic funeral and was buried in a cemetary.
As the kids hug their father, having emerged from the bus, they begin to enthusiastically scream that they have to complete “Mission Save Mom.” And, given what has already happened, Mission Save Mom entails the family grave-robbing their mother’s corpse and burning it off somewhere. But that’s not all. Being very “comical,” Leslie left it in her will that she wanted her ashes to be flushed down a toilet. So, yes: part of “Mission Save Mom” entails flushing her ashes down a shitter.
The family does end up successfully unearthing the casket and boarding it inside Steve-the-bus. We, as the audience, are supposed to be touched as “touching” music plays while the children smile and pet their mother’s corpse in the open casket inside the bus that Daddy is driving. It seems bizarre in that even two of the youngest children, seven and perhaps six or five, respectively, are also nonchalantly enjoying the mirth and company of their mother’s corpse.
Eventually a pyre is set up somewhere in nature. The body is covered and adorned with plants and flowers. Viggo kisses Leslie’s covered corpse and speaks a romantic, “my lips, hands, etc, are mine, but I myself am yours,” and then the family sets fire to the rain. As the pyre starts catching fire, we are supposed to be moved when one of the daughters says something like, “Oh mommy, here goes your favorite song” and starts a cappella-ing Guns and Roses’s “Sweet Child of Mine,” with the rest of the family eventually joining in with harmony and instruments.
The family then bonds at an airport bathroom–where they will leave Bo (the oldest son) to leave to Namibia–by flushing Leslie’s ashes down the toilet (but not before saying “bye mommy”).
The end of the movie shows us that Ben has reconciled some of his radical principles with a more balanced form of upbringing, that keeps the nature-esque formation while blending with some more commodity. The family built an actual house now and turn Steve-the-bus into a chicken coup. The final scene is the family sitting down at the breakfast table eating perhaps sugared cereal, which the earlier Ben would not have allowed. One of Ben’s son pours him cereal and some music starts playing. We are left with that ‘touching’ scene.
What should one conclude, as a whole, of the film’s message? Well…
I believe the end of the film seeks to trivialize the robbing and burning of a corpse that has already been buried. What is more, it is not realistic to see a five and seven-year-old acting so joyfully and perfectly cool with their mother’s corpse in an open casket, and then dancing around the burning corpse at the pyre, the old pagan way. To nail the triviality further, the flushing down of Leslie’s ashes is also presented as a moment of family bonding.
Vigo Mortensen’s truly touching moment of remorse while driving off supposedly alone is ruined by the sudden happy return of his kids and their subsequent completion of “Mission Save Mom.” The movie trivializes a pagan ritual that has not been around the western world for hundreds of years and seeks to present it as a touching family moment of mirth and conciliation.
The believability of the film, moreover, is also compromised with this overly artificial ending.
Thus, if you seek a movie where the value of secular humanist principles in upbringing seem to lose and then comes back to triumph with a modernly pagan corpse-burning and ash-flusing, then Captain Fantastic, in its entirety, is the film for you. For more philosophically and emotionally reasonable viewers, however, the film would have done better to end with Ben’s (and Viggo Mortensen’s) sincere moment of contrition and detachment, one of the best depictions of emotional remorse in many films and clearly the moment of emotional climax of the film. Unfortunately, Matt Ross opted for a different kind of brain child.