Short Takes: Captain Fantastic

(Matt Ross, U.S., 2016)

The Robinson Crusoe fantasy seems to hold a peculiar grip on American indies. With some regularity, films like Captain Fantastic (and Swiss Army Man) appear, featuring outliers who patch together their homes and personal styles from outré or whimsical sources. Perhaps certain indie directors identify with these DIYers, who often see their idiosyncratic visions come crashing up against limits imposed by the rest of the world.

Single dad of six Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is the latest go-it-aloner to hit screens, prominent in ad stills in a retro red wedding suit alongside his Scooby Doo–palette family. Living with his well-trained kids in mountain-man isolation, he’s a fiercely protective, unreconstructed leftist like Daniel Day-Lewis’s in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Until… family drama! The deer-gutting, Bill of Rights–quoting children start asking questions, and a road trip leads the brood into the clutches of a rich, square grandfather (Frank Langella).

Writer-director Ross lapses into contrivance, narrative and emotional, but it’d be worse without Mortensen’s utter conviction and that rugged, out-of-time mien which has served him well in stories of extremity from The Road to Jauja. A very surprised Ross won a major prize at Cannes for his efforts, months after the film’s Sundance debut, but for my money, nothing improves upon the opening drone-like shot of sunny mountain woods, the perspective faintly curved, a perverse snow-globe snapshot of isolation.