Credit: Erik Simkins

If hell is other people, the life Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has carved out for himself and his six young children is paradise: a kind of radicalized Swiss Family Robinson experiment played out in the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest. A tough but loving taskmaster, he has trained his brood to be tiny warriors in mind, body, and spirit, “philosopher kings” who can skin a deer as capably as they debate the finer points of quantum physics or bicker back and forth in Esperanto.

When his wife finally loses her long battle with mental illness, though, Ben is forced, at least temporarily, to reenter the “real” world he’s spent so many years conscientiously rejecting—and as a suddenly single parent, that means the kids have to come too. So they set out for the funeral on a dilapidated school bus named Steve, determined to make their way to her estranged family in New Mexico without surrendering a scrap of integrity (or their bowie knives). But of course, Ben can’t control the inevitable breach once they leave the mountaintop: The siren call of pop culture, processed sugar, and first-person-shooter videogames comes from every corner. And eldest son Bodevan (the excellent George MacKay, who looks like a lost Culkin sibling) in particular realizes how unprepared his father’s teachings have made him and his siblings for life on the outside.

It’s a testament to writer-director Matt Ross, who is probably best known as an actor on shows like Big Love and Silicon Valley, that Captain skirts cliché as well as it does; his indictments of both contemporary emptiness and misguided idealism feel earned, even if it all ties up a little too Sundance-tidy in the end. But the movie truly belongs to Mortensen; fierce and tender and tremendously flawed, he’s fantastic. B+

Captain Fantastic
  • Movie
  • 119 minutes