The Ambiguity of Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is a brilliant film. Sensitive and compassionate, it tells the story of a family isolated from society, who are forced to go cross country to attend their mother’s funeral. In doing so, they have to enter mainstream society for the first time. It is remarkably beautiful, with an excellent script and nuanced performances, especially from the children and Viggo Mortensen as Ben.

Ben is a dropout from society, obsessed with Noam Chomsky. He has removed his children from society and taken them deep into the woods. There, he raises his children on a steady diet of exercise and books, forcing them to think deeply and analyse what they read. He is anti-society and anti- establishment and forces these views on his children.

One of the best things about the film is that it refuses to paint any of its characters as heroes or villains. The main antagonist is the children’s grandfather, Jack (Frank Langella), who attempts to take the kids off Ben. He represents everything Ben despises in the modern society- he is rich, a born again Christian and is committed to keeping the status quo. But even though the film is shown from Ben’s perspective, Jack is not a villain. He has clear reasons for doing what he does, mainly the love of his family and wanting to do the right thing. He makes a convincing case why Ben is in the wrong.

So many times in modern films the story searches for simplicity. We want our main characters to be good and virtuous and the villains to be evil. The villains often lack convincing motivation beyond ‘They’re bad.’ The problem with this system is that the antagonists lack power and as such the drama falls flat. There is no real danger or conflict.

What is refreshing about Captain Fantastic is that it creates believable antagonists and characters. Jack is not some cackling villain. But Ben is also not completely perfect. The extremity of his position means his children are unprepared for the real world. He also forces the children to steal and berates them for not shooting sheep standing in a field. The film is not afraid to show its characters as more realistic, flawed human beings, whom may not necessarily know what the best thing to do is. It embraces ambiguity and in doing so creates richer, more interesting drama.

This ambiguity extends to the questions raised by the film. Is it better to exile yourself from society or try to change it from within? Is knowledge better acquired through books or from real world experience? Does the tyranny of the system justify stealing food and shooting sheep? The film raises all these questions and never fully answers them. But it never feels unsatisfying. Instead, the film uses the ambiguity to power the drama and motivate its characters. Extreme positions are explored and it suggests the real answers lie in the middle of both stances, but never makes it explicit. The ambiguity allows the film to feel more complex and realistic.

When writing scripts and stories, it’s worth exploring ideas and events from another character’s perspective. It is also worth considering the motivations of the antagonist, to ensure they are not just stereotypically evil. Captain Fantastic treads this line well and is all the better for it.

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