Since “Rapunzel,” storytellers have warned us against isolating children to protect them from corruption in the outside world.
So a danger flag is aloft long before we hear that Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is raising six kids in the woods in “a paradise out of Plato’s ‘Republic,’ where the children are philosopher-kings.” He’s training them to be elite athletes, autodidacts who not only read deep books but analyze them well, survivalists who use knives and bows to lethal effect (on animals, so far).
But is he teaching them to be rounded human beings? Is it desirable — or even possible — for Ben and his kids, most of whom follow him ardently, to compromise with people who live amid shopping malls and golf courses? Can visionaries don blinders to relate to the unenlightened?
Those are the questions in “Captain Fantastic,” and writer-director Matt Ross doesn’t answer them until the last scene. He fills this movie with complicated characterizations, none more so than eldest son Bodevan (George MacKay).
Bo has carried out dad’s dream for a decade; now, abetted by his mother (who has just died), he has been accepted by top colleges and wants to go. That would mean re-entry into a world which, according to his dad, is filled with fascists, leeches and dullards. Bo is brilliant yet immature: He proposes to the first girl he kisses and realizes, as he says, “I’m a freak.”
Ross doesn’t provide a back story: We don’t know what happened to shape Ben, who looks to be 50, or why his late wife so eagerly moved with him to the northwestern wilderness. Perhaps she was running away from her father, a conventional man who spent his life earning millions. (Frank Langella plays this small role with softly angry conviction.)
Ben is smart, fit and resolute, but he’s a benign tyrant: If the family makes music around its campfire, anyone can lead the band — but nobody can refuse to play. Cracks that have begun to appear in the firmament of solidarity widen when the seven take a bus trip to New Mexico for the mother’s funeral; soon, they’re exposed to a world that disgusts yet tempts.
We’re not asked to side with Ben all the time. He tells his kids it’s acceptable to steal food from a supermarket — run by “the man,” of course, whoever that may be — and encourages them to hunt a farmer’s sheep to stay in practice en route to the funeral. He has questioned everyone else’s values for so long that he’s out of the habit of questioning his own.
Mortensen has been ideally cast. He’s at his best playing fanatics, obsessives, people beyond the norm who can’t find their place in a quiet world. You can imagine him pushing children to their breaking points and, just possibly, getting them to respect him for it.
MacKay, who is too rarely seen outside his native England, fully reveals the kid Ben might have been: fervent, doctrinaire, potentially sweet and stubborn. In this case, “Like father, like son” becomes both a troubling and inspiring idea.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton.
Writer-director: Matt Ross.
A Bleecker Street release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity. Playing at area theaters.