As seems to be the norm, I’m late to the game… but better to show up late than not at all. Right? This post is a review piece on the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic staring Viggo Mortensen. Quite frankly, the reason I’m writing this review here and now in 2019 is that I keep reading reviews of this movie and haven’t ever found the one I’m looking for… I guess that means that like everyone else, I’m looking for something that aligns with my subjective take on the thing. Having not found one in 3 years that I agree with (in total), and after much sighing in frustration, I decided to write my own.
Well, it’s not really that I just want to write my own, it’s that almost every Christian review I’ve read about this movie is embarrassing to me as a Christian, and I’m going to focus a lot on the religious (or anti-religious) bits of the movie. So, let’s get a few things out of the way; this movie features cussing, anti-religious sentiment, and last but(t) not least, full-frontal male nudity. Yes, indeed, if you want Viggo in all his glory, this is the movie for you. I happen to love this movie, but that is in spite of, not because of, Viggo’s glory. Please, if nudity offends you, I totally understand, don’t watch the movie. If someone using the Lord’s name as a (or in the midst of a) curse word, is a deal breaker, avoid it. I really do understand completely. (One point I never see mentioned when people are going off about said nudity is that there is zero, 0, female nudity in this movie, and the nudity is not sexual in any way… I think that is on purpose and makes me like the movie more, because I truly think the writer/director Matt Ross did it to make a point.)
Anywho, enough about the nudity. This review and discussion contains spoilers, and yes, the movie is 3 years old, but on the ‘net there is always that one person who screams bloody murder at the fact there wasn’t a spoiler warning even though it’s old news. What we have with Captain Fantastic is a story about parenting (specifically fatherhood), and the attempt to be present in your offspring’s lives to a greater degree than anyone else is; to raise your kids as you see fit. Matt Ross then adds the layer of; what if those parents have an ideology that does not line up with the majority population? Most reviews miss this basic point. Many believe this movie exists to bash a certain political or religious perspective, and they contend the vehicle for this is how we are supposed to feel about Ben (played by Viggo) who is the patriarch of his family. I don’t know what movie they were watching but the father is not portrayed as a hero… all I can come up with is people were 1) not paying attention while watching and 2) were so offended by what they perceived to be the point early on, that they missed the point entirely.
The family; Ben Cash the Dad, Leslie the Mom, oldest brother Bodevan, twin girls Kielyr & Vespyr, Rellian the rebellious brother, Zaja the death obsessed sister, and the “baby” of the family, little brother Nai. Mom and Dad are out of the norm and hard to quantify specifically, but what I instantly noticed that never really gets mentioned is that Ben wears a Mjolnir pendant. Now, we are told flat out that Leslie, his wife, is an Buddhist in regards to philosophy not religion, but we are never told what Ben is, other than he isn’t Christian. Their main beef seems to be against organized religion, which may be a reaction against Leslie’s upbringing that sharp-eyed viewers will find to be Catholic. Many wear Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer) as a sign of protection, or as a nod to heritage, there are even Neo-Nazi’s who have latched on to it as a symbol. Some wear it to simply show they aren’t Christian, but Ben’s use of it is interesting because who exactly is he wearing it for? They see almost nobody, but even in the deep woods, or when showering in a waterfall, he keeps it on and no one (in the movie or in the reviews) really seems to notice. (Interesting side note; Viggo, as himself, has been photographed wearing one as well.) Further, if I may jump to the end of the movie, in the final scene we clearly see he is not wearing it anymore, which is a really important clue that he has indeed changed his ways.
The whole family lives out in the Pacific northwest on a kind of homestead; tiny house with teepee, garden, treehouse, etc… They hunt and grow and can their own food. The kids are homeschooled, which includes hand-to-hand fighting, meditation, wilderness survival training, lots of phys ed, field trips, music education, and a handpicked reading itinerary complete with tests and debates. They all dress (or undress) however they feel like. Mom is conspicuously absent and we soon learn why; she’s been admitted to a hospital because of her bipolar disorder which has finally forced her families to try to get her intensive help. She slits her own wrists one night and we get the feeling she’s threatened to do this many times before, but this time succeeds and kills herself. This sets the stage for the rest of the movie.
Now, here are some points that many don’t seem to catch. When Ben finds out she’s dead, he looks through their important papers and opens her will. We see (and hear) that Ben himself is shocked at her requests (we are kept in the dark about the particulars at first), just as earlier in the movie we see he is shocked at little Zaja’s death obsession that revolves around taxidermy, altars made of animal skulls, and Pol Pot. Again, dad is not fully in control here and we are allowed to see that, nor is he immune to the norms and mores of the wider culture.
Leslie was being treated close to her mom and dad, who are rich, powerful, and used to getting their way. Because of the Cash family’s “wild” ways they do not want Ben interfering with Leslie’s funeral and burial and warns Ben to stay away, which of course he doesn’t. Now, here is where I wish more Christians would express their outrage along with Ben. Leslie’s mom and dad, who are Catholics, completely and totally ignore their daughter’s wishes and will. Leslie was a Buddhist who wanted to be cremated, not embalmed and buried. She wanted music and dancing; a celebration of her life. And, yes, she wanted her ashes flushed down a toilet. Hey, I don’t agree that’s how human remains should be handled, but that is what she wanted and had listed in her will. Other reviewers focus on Ben (and fam’s) “bad” behavior in the church during her funeral… bad behavior? Reading her will, dressing out of the norm, and trying to stop the proceedings is not the bad behavior. The bad behavior is on the part of the mom and dad who did not respect their daughter’s last wishes, who had her embalmed, placed in a Catholic Church, all laid out in a massive coffin, and then buried under a Christian tombstone. None of that is acceptable from a Christian perspective and is meaningless to put a non-Christian through it.
Other worthy mentions; reviewers target a conversation that takes place in a bank. The kids are shocked when they see everyone is so overweight. They haven’t been exposed to that before, and they wonder if everyone is sick. Nai thinks everyone looks like hippos and says so. His sisters remind him that isn’t proper, “We don’t make fun of people.” Vespyr helpfully chirps, “except Christians!” What most Christian reviewers miss is the look of exasperation on Ben’s face right after his daughter says this. He knows he’s caught in the very same hypocrisy that he claims infects Christianity. Does he correct this? No, but the look says it all and we are supposed to catch it as the viewers.
In another scene, Ben is rightfully pulled over for a non-functioning left taillight. The police officer boards “Steve” (their modified school bus) and begins poking around because the kids are not in school and the situation appears unusual. Bodevan gets the idea to run the officer off by proselytizing like a stereotypical evangelical Christian homeschooled family, and they all begin serenading the officer with “One Day When Heaven was Filled with His Praises” and the officer beats a hasty retreat, sending them on their way. Somehow this offends Christians too… but this Christian has heard the jokes my brothers and sisters tell each other; “When you get a call from either a salesperson, or a fake phishing call, just start telling them about Jesus and they’ll hang up really quick! Hahaha.” We know how proselytizing can come off, and some have weaponized it, and now we’re going to act ticked off because it’s used in a similar fashion, but by a non-believer? Nah, it’s funny, lighten up.
Let me flip it for a second and also clarify a point that confuses some reviewers. Ben and fam don’t celebrate Christmas, even the secularized version. This is one of the areas of the film that I’m really surprised they didn’t tweak. Instead of any holiday like Christmas, the Cash family celebrates Noam Chomsky day… and they celebrate it early on their adventure, just like Christmas in July. Rellian, the family rebel, thinks it’s stupid, and asks why they can’t just celebrate Christmas like everyone else. Ben then weaponizes his own philosophy against his son; he essentially humiliates Rellian by demanding an answer to the following question. “You would prefer to celebrate a magical fictitious elf, instead of a living humanitarian who’s done so much to promote human rights and understanding?” I’ve seen Christian reviewers get really bent out of shape here… because they think he’s referencing Christ. No. He’s referencing Santa Claus of course. (Personally I think this is a misstep in writing Ben’s character, but it may have been deliberate to sidestep actually bashing Christian beliefs. Why would Ben have focused on attacking something we all know isn’t true vs. attacking the idea of Jesus Himself? It doesn’t fit the character, IMO.) But that’s beside the point, the point is, this is not an attack on Christ.
And finally the point of the movie itself; the dad was wrong. Not only was the dad wrong, he figures that out, and tells the kids (and us) just how wrong he has been (this is after what I see to be the climax of the movie when his daughter Vespyr falls from her grandparents’ rooftop and about dies). Now, if the point of the movie was to glorify Marxism, and anti-Christian sentiment, why would the dad admit his experiment was “a beautiful mistake?” Why would he then change course, move his kids back to a farm and enroll them in public school, and remove his Mjolnir pendant for the first time in the whole movie? It’s clear as day that he is still a loving, devoted father, he’s just realized there is more than one way to show that and to guide and protect his kids. We can also see that the family does not throw out their former lives or learning, but things are repurposed and balanced out. The point is; if you make your kids into philosopher kings and they have no society to interact with, then what’s the point? If you get your kids seriously injured or killed in raising them up, then what’s the point? Ben has finally learned you have to walk the path between order and chaos in a balanced manner.
All of that to say; I loved the movie. It’s one that should make you think, but if you go into it with a chip on your shoulder about what you initially perceive as “anti” this and that, then you’ll miss the lessons Ben learns along the way. Movies like this should especially challenge us Christians and make us reflect on if there is any truth to the stereotypes against us, and if they are something we want to change or not. It should also make everyone, Christian and non, realize the importance of educating ourselves and raising the bar when it comes to interpersonal discussions, and parenting. Finally, it also calls our society into question; what we spend time, effort, and money on, and if those things are actually meaningful (or inline with the Christian ideal anymore).
I plan to post at least one more article on particular aspects of the movie that I found so interesting, I hope, dear reader, that perhaps they will be interesting to you as well…