While you may not immediately recognize the name Matt Ross, you have more than likely seen him grace the screen at one point or another. In addition to appearing on numerous episodes of recent television hits like "American Horror Story" and "Silicon Valley," he has also snuck on-screen in big-budget film fare like Twelve Monkeys, American Psycho, and The Aviator. To this point, Ross has enjoyed a long, if subdued, acting career in Hollywood, but the past few years have seen him start to slip into the world behind the camera. He created a few shorts before delving into his debut feature - 2012's 28 Hotel Rooms - which met mixed reception from both the critical and audience communities. His sophomore effort, Captain Fantastic, looks to be the film that shows he can be adept in the director's chair as well.
Captain Fantastic centers on Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a hippie-ish father of six raising his family in the wilderness depths of the Pacific Northwest. He teaches his children daily, running them through training exercises that craft both their body and mind while they live off the grid. When the family learns that their mother (Trin Miller) has suddenly passed away, the children beg their father to let them head into the everyday world in the hopes of attending her funeral. Ben initially resists after being told by his father-in-law (Frank Langella) that should he come near the ceremony, he would have Ben arrested. Despite his reservations, Ben's troupe makes their way towards the New Mexico service, learning from and interacting with a slew of individuals along the way.
While I have not seen Ross's previous directorial endeavors, if he were to be judged solely based on this most recent effort, I would say that we have a fascinating new voice in the realm of cinema. The writer/director has crafted an elegant story about a man trying to keep his off-kilter family afloat amidst a sea of outside forces pounding against them. Both Ben and his wife make the decision to move their family into the wilderness, but after losing her, Ben must decide whether he alone can continue to keep his family safe without the structure that a normal, everyday life could bring. Ross packs an incredible amount of emotion into the film, and that emotion stems from a number of sources. The story itself offers a number of highs and lows, but it is in the individual characterizations that the family truly comes to life. We see a constant shift of emotion as one may grieve while another comforts, and this cycle continues from the film's start to finish. Handling the emotion of one character can be challenging enough, but Ross has created a movie where the emotion ebbs and flows from character to character over a two-hour run-time in a beautifully graceful manner.
Writers and directors can craft and create beautiful stories with amazing characters, but the cast must still rise to the occasion to bring those characters to life. Since becoming a household name through the Lord of the Rings franchise, Viggo Mortensen has channeled his fame into a string of amazing performances in smaller-budget dramatic fare. From A History of Violence to Eastern Promises to The Road, Mortensen has managed to put forth strong outing after strong outing for over a decade, and his performance here in Captain Fantastic might just be his strongest yet. The story calls for his character to be the family's rock, and he does a wonderful job balancing all of his childrens' emotions while we can clearly see he's barely holding himself together. This energy wells behind his eyes from the start of the film, and his moment of release proves to be powerfully moving. Mortensen's Ben is the emotional and moral center of the film, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park.
While the adult supporting cast of Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, and the aforementioned Langella do well with their respective roles, the real treat opposite Mortensen's brilliance lies with his on-screen children. Each actor brings forth a unique and definable performance that complements everyone else in the group. Shree Crooks offers an encyclopedic intelligence while Charlie Shotwell gives us a youthful innocence. Nicholas Hamilton brings fury and anger while Annalise Basso illustrates a wild and independent spirit. Samantha Isler presents a thoughtful adolescence while George MacKay shows us a boy standing on the precipice of manhood. Each character belongs to one particular moment of childhood, and through them all, we see the full spectrum of life and learning. Individually, the film presents a set of truly beautiful characters, but when the sextet blends together, we just might be seeing one of the most cohesive and complete family units every put to the silver screen.
In the midst of telling his story, Matt Ross performs a balancing act by showing both the positive and negative aspects of the life lifestyle that Mortensen's Ben has created. In certain moments, we feel drawn to his character's ideals, believing him to be showing the audience the way, the truth, and the light. When other characters stand in opposition of his principles, they sound outrageous and insane. As time continues to pass, however, the rose-colored glasses fall off our faces, and we begin to see the flaws in Ben's experiment. Just as the on-screen individuals begin to question their own livelihoods, we too start to wonder what would be best in the situation and how we might act and react were it to happen to us. Captain Fantastic does a wonderful job in portraying both sides of the coin, allowing the viewer to determine just where they stand. Ross presents this opportunity deftly, showing the steady hand one would expect from a more seasoned director.
Much of the film's events take place as a result of one character's complications with bipolar disorder, but the movie itself also uses the bipolar concept as a template. We experience the drastic highs and lows alongside Ben and his family, and we feel the swings of emotion as we join them on their journey. Captain Fantastic is ultimately about life and death, but it's also about love and hate, right and wrong, and pain and forgiveness. The depth of the characters will draw you to them, and the depth of their emotion will pull on your heartstrings as you laugh and cry with this off little family. For a pure, emotional experience, Captain Fantastic will simply be hard to beat.