Thoughts On: Captain Fantastic
I’ve previously covered this film without spoilers giving general thoughts. For a spoiler doused talk on why I love this film, you’re in the right place.
As touched on in the last post, what makes this film so strong is its narrative. It perfectly juggles each character, pulling from them the plot, not making them walk a clearly predefined path. In this, Captain Fantastic isn’t a very formal film, it grows into a plot with the mother dying so early on, but very loosely adheres to the subsequent idea of the road trip. The likes of Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle or even Lord Of The Rings are road trip movies, but examples that have an end to be sought out that is the singular, most crucial, focus of the film. And whilst Harold and Kumar do change somewhat, The Fellowship take broad arcs of character, this material end goal (White Castle, destroying Sauron) is the point of their narratives. The reason we watch these films is to experience struggle, a dire and true struggle of war, of world war, presented by Lord Of The Rings, or a much more hyperbolic and comedic – though relatable(ish) – struggle in Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle. The reason why I bring up these two polar ‘road trip’ films is that, formally, Captain Fantastic sits somewhere between the two. But, again, this isn’t a very formal movie. Whilst it sits between these films in terms of tone, having both comedy and a tragic emotional struggle, it distinguishes itself greatly from these two and every other road trip movie (that comes to mind) with the purpose of ‘the road trip’ being purely of self-discovery. This, I know, is an arguable point with all films holding significant character arcs essentially being about their self-discovery. However, this idea of self-discovery realises itself in different ways. With something like Lord Of The Rings, we see a struggle for peace, an incredibly physical one presented by a cacophony of external conflict. With Harold and Kumar, we see a struggle for reprieve, for a good meal to satisfy some heavy munchies, as presented by, again, physical conflict. Through war or escaped cheetahs both films create change in their characters lives. In Captain Fantastic, we are seeing almost entirely an internal conflict wear away at the main characters, forcing them to evolve. This is a major point of distinction because the narrative created from conflict within characters – their worries, regrets, anger, passion, love – is one by and for them. It’s from this that you can fully comprehend the astounding depth of character in this movie. Using these characters as voices Captain Fantastic then manages to say so much; primarily, and to paraphrase: it is not our words that matter, but our actions.
What this outlines about the film is that everything characters do is an almost irrefutable statement. We don’t just hear about; eating right, education, living off the land, not being a pure consumer, being truthful, being care-free, adventurous and liberal; we see kids hiking every morning, reading books I haven’t the slightest idea about, killing their own food, expressing the painful truth of their mother’s suicide, climbing cliff faces, sticking together. This not only demonstrates the concentration of the narrative on these characters’ beliefs, but transforms a road trip rife with, what you might call, physical conflict, into a personal test of this family’s dictation of self. Getting to their mother/wife is not about rolling down a highway, batting away crazy mishaps, just about beating the clock to crash the funeral and fight for what their own personal characters in the beginning of the narrative told them was right. Getting to the funeral for the Cashes is about exposing a deep wound: venturing into a world they refuse to be apart of, but also exploring an idea of death under the guise of responsibility and family. By getting in Steve the children are being asked, are you willing to lose your father? Are you willing to test your loyalty to him and your mother? Assess your belief systems with the powerful indulgences of modern society in your face? Risk losing who you are now for an inevitable change of persona and outlook? In the same respect, Ben is being asked, are you willing to risk losing your kids to the world? To an easy way of life? To grandparents? To face the implied idea that you’re responsible for killing your own wife? To have everything you stand for torn apart by the big, bad and questioning, wide world? All of these questions coalesce into a narrative imbued with subtext. And whilst the subtextual questioning (all we’ve picked up on) is quite prominent, their implication on character’s lives and a greater narrative message is deeply poignant. It’s this that not only creates an astounding film of entertaining, endearing and captivating characters, but constructs an abstract dream space above this movie whereby the audience is forced to emotionally and mentally invest in the narrative, to think, to feel, to thoroughly experience, this movie.
It’s the former idea of character, entertainment and emotional resonation that I’ve already tried to convey as to kind of sell the film in review-ish form. However, it’s the latter concept of a message that I want to get into here. And to start, this movie demonstrates, to me, the best kind of cinema. This has been said time and time again, but cinema is an art form that can both entertain and inform; it can be of inconsiquence or strive to be of great importance. The best films, in my opinion, are the ones that do both of these things, and such is the task of a filmmaker – to balance their art, their technical, abstract, pretentious and pithy inclinations with that which an audience is looking for: a good time at the pictures. The best films are then those that show you something worth seeing, but leave you with something that was worth telling. Captain Fantastic is such a brilliant demonstration of this kind of cinema as the message, the artsy and pretentious, side of this movie serves as added entertainment. The conflicts brought about by the philosophical enquiries of this movie are where the comedy, the tragedy and every emotion in between come in. In other words, the fundamental question of this movie is of how we fit into this world, and from this flourishes the way in which the Cash family is compared to their cousins for comedic effect, the struggle and pain of seeing how they react to their mother committing suicide, us experiencing what seems like social terrorism, but what also kind of makes a lot of sense – things like kids swearing, not going to school, having an honest and true relationship with violence, death, sex and all of life’s: ‘you’ll understand/see when you’re older’s. However, the film clearly isn’t as simple as a presentation of these alternate ways of thinking; there is a clear and concise evaluation of these ideals through character and through narrative. And to this speaks best Ben’s arc of learning the fragility of the individual: Ben starting the film seeing himself and children as invincible, but ending realising their sudden frailty, seeing his and his kid’s convoluted humanity. This arc is then split into two. There is a moral and a physical recontextualisation of Ben’s perspective.
To start with the physical, we primarily experience with Ben this idea of societal flow. He retreats, completely backs away from society and into the woods. Society continues to be and to move on around him though. This is what we are being told with the threat of the Grandparents, them taking away the children and Ben going to prison. Most poignantly, it’s best to look at the first act juxtaposed with the arrow scene where the Grandfather takes Rellian from Ben. Throughout the opening scenes we watch the kids endure arduous training, Rellian break his hand, but we are, through tone, made to see this in positive light. We are made to see the power of the human body, to revere an idea of physically being the best you can and working incredibly hard for that. However, this is an acutely contextualise perspective of the kid’s ‘training’. As Jack, the Grandfather, makes clear: seen through the eye of the average person, the ‘training’ is child abuse, is something that produces bruises, scathes, cuts; tests the human body in a way that cannot be explained away so easily to a police officer, a social worker, a judge, a jury. This juxtaposition of ideals is so powerful because it instils into Ben, just as it does us, a sharp reflection, an abrupt cross-examination of self: am I doing this right? It’s this question that is effortlessly translated to an emotion, a narrative device, throughout the film, and so establishes a fascinating ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. With the crucial theme of parenthood, Captain Fantastic best sets up an idea that the world is of the individual’s making. It shows the power of a single person able to survive on their own, and in doing so reveals society to be little more than the expression of blind, somewhat denied, ill-understanding. In other words, no one knows what they’re doing on this Earth. No one knows what we’re really supposed to do when we wake up. We feel that we don’t want to die, we don’t want to be in any pain, and so we go to work or school, we build upon our material resources, cling to and expand our social circles. But, these are actions incredibly hard to question and analyse. Why do we do these things? Primarily, fear, apprehension, incomprehension. We don’t want to die, we want to survive: the singular guiding force of the human complex. This has us construct our own fabrications, has us tell ourselves of heaven, hell, eternity, but tremble at the idea of dying. It’s without a serious analysis of this paradigm, this conjecture, that most of us live the majority of our lives. We live behaving like we will never die.
It’s this singular idea that stands central of all character motivation in this film. As touched on, a key philosophy paraphrased is: it is not our words that matter, but our actions. With the key theme of death and this philosophy, we see in the Cashes the true meaning of the grindingly annoying: YOLO. This isn’t something to say–it isn’t something you should say full stop – nonetheless, this isn’t something to say as to justify a stupid, irrational action. The concept of only having one life is not something that should catalyse anarchy, that should allow a person overcome sense. The modern interpretation of this in pop culture is the fundamental expression of humans living without questioning death, living like we will never die. YOLO is why you are waking up, going to school, going to work, obliging yourself into that low-level, rumbling and privileged pain. Also at fault is arguably the human bond with theology or spirituality – especially in a convoluted, nonsensical, undevoted manner. In other words, it is the lack of thought, the appeal to an aphorism, a movement, a cliche, a wider abstract idea not belonging to you, that has people live blindly, that drives the emotive understanding of the arrow scene. It’s Ben being told that he could be sued, have his kids taken away on grounds he cannot defend, because he was teaching his kids to live a toughened, yet (what he saw to be) true life, that demonstrates the dogmatism of a brazenly naive and unknowing race. Society knows best; listen to it. This is the conflict Ben faces – both internally and externally. It’s here where you then see the physical and moral implications of his character arc and conflict. He faces a society of people who know no more of life than him, but still have the power to dictate his. It’s exactly this that is the consequence of people, us humans, not thinking about a fundamental question of death in a deep, sensible and true light. And this to be a core message of the narrative. It’s because Harper, Ben’s sister, cannot tell her children about his wife’s suicide, cannot express a true and grounded facade to the world that the funeral happens the way it does. She essentially represents an average person who, through their actions, advocates an idea that society knows best; listen to it. The best scene to demonstrate this would be the one where she questions Ben’s kids’ education and is made to look the fool. She thinks public education, her state, country, government, knows best and is the only qualified being capable of imparting knowledge. Such, when you think about it, is complete folly, is utter bullshit – but we live under these idea constantly. The link to death here is easily seen in the crowd attending the funeral – they know this is not Leslie’s wish, but think they know better, think the best way to handle things is to do what everyone else around them does: have a Christian funeral service.
The larger ideal Ben then represents then comes down to the individual. There is a philosophy of acceptance, seeing us all as equal and blithering idiots, but ones who have the capacity to question, to see truth, sense and then live by it – ones who nonetheless often choose not to. Death is the best ship for this because a truer meaning of ‘YOLO’ is expressed by riding in a bus with your mother’s open coffin, singing and dancing as her corpse burns to ashes and then smiling as her remains wash down an airport bathroom toilet. With utmost confidence, I can assert that the majority of people who say YOLO do not see the world in this way. Such is the fault of how we perceive death in society composited. However, it is at this point where we cannot forget that whist Ben retains many of his philosophies from the first act, he has endured a change of character. It is not the purpose of this narrative to call most people dumb, allergic to introspection, scared of deep thought, incapable of living as they think, being what they preach. If it were then we wouldn’t have the end of the film showing Ben’s oldest going off into the world, the rest of his children getting ready for school. Ben’s crucial realisation is, again, that people, himself and his children are fragile. Whilst we’ve touched on the physical side of this – them being able to climb mountains, but not fight off police, government and society – there is an added moral side. The biggest risk Ben takes is exposing his children to the ‘real world’, to the condemned, fascist, consumerist society he escaped. It’s here where we see a quick lesson in writing also. In a recent post or Narrative Purpose we touched on the story telling process and how ideas are turned into stories. In doing so, we came across the first steps of bringing together a story – having something to say. Captain Fantastic, with central themes of parenthood, growth and death, most simply says: you have to let you’re children grow and become their own people. This is cliched, bland and seemingly disinteresting. But, as said previously, your fundamental idea doesn’t have to be the most articulate and original thing (it’s great if it is – though, equally difficult to conjure up a new to-be cliche). Captain Fantastic demonstrates that whilst the core, driving idea can be a simple one, it’s the expression of it in narrative and cinematic terms that counts. Captain Fantastic, on these grounds, is somewhat transcendental. It implies that experiencing truth, not just being told of it, is what actually makes it such, is exactly what turns the cliche into understood authenticity. The film then allows us to experience what is implied to be truth (kid’s having to find their own way – amongst a myriad of other details) instead of just telling us about it – which is exactly why the narrative is so strong, why it resonates and communicates so well, why it’s not cliched, but genuine.
However, coming away from what this film elicits fundamentally, we come back to Ben’s moral struggle. To let his kids go, he must take one step further his philosophy of people being equal, of the individual’s ideas being their prerogative, their beliefs, that should be expressed through action, being true, thought-out, not just rented. He has to essentially learn to let apart of himself be someone else’s. He has to relinquish control, will, personal determination. This is the lasting crux of the film and is expressed directly with his last words to his wife:
My face is mine, my hands are mine, my mouth is mine, but I’m not; I am yours.
What he is communicating is that his tools of action (face, hands, mouth) are his to effect the world, but that his true and intangible idea of self – what can only be an expression of human comprehension: a comprehension of self – is belonging to something other than his body. This serves as commentary on the ideas of collective thinking, being a sheep, renting philosophies and ways of life. It says that these things are irrefutably human, that people are alone in this world, that we are unknowing, individual and somewhat lost – but can nonetheless reach out and grip another lost and wandering hand. This is why Ben accepts society, why he lets his children go to school, travel the world, be with their Grandparents. He understands that there is a human need to belong to something else, to define and burrow out ‘your place in this world’. Such is another cliche, but is one easily misunderstood. Our place in this world is not another prerogative, is not a right, is not something waiting for you. Your ‘place’ is a feeling of comfort and resolution. Your ‘place’ is forgetting that you need to be searching for one. And for Ben, he finds that in his wife. Yes, his kids are an expression of this, but they are not, and cannot be, what his wife was to him. They must find their own place in this world, not just be given one. In this I mean not to push nihilism into a postmodern flurry of directionlessness in hope to stumble into some pocket of acceptable reality. The reason why a ‘place in this world’ is given to a pronoun is that whilst we are finding a means to fit into this world, we are simultaneously creating our own. And this is the pivotal reason why Noam Chomsky is referenced so many times and lastly quoted:
“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
This is not a quote that suggests we all have to better the world, that we directly have to change the state of things as to match an internal feeling – and instinct for freedom – A.K.A being what you preach, acting as your beliefs dictate. This is not the meaning of the quote in the context of the movie. This quote amongst the themes of Captain Fantastic suggests that, to create a better world for ourselves, we need hope in the form of reasoning – someone or something at our side – for Ben, his, family, wife in memory and world view. This someone or something is essentially demonstrated to be our world – our personal shade of reality. It’s from here where hope flourishes, for hope is the recognition of possibility, the chance and ability to effect – and for most, our capabilities will never stretch far beyond the regions of our personal life: our families, work and efforts. This is why changing ‘the world’ is not about the society around you, cultures, countries, this blue/green spec in infinite space. Changing the world is about adopting a place in your perceived reality, contorting it into something you see as near-perfect, before giving it away to exist as a vacuum of self in this unfathomable void of reality around us. Giving it away is the most important step, is entirely what Captain Fantastic is about. Ben letting his kids go is him letting go of all he created with his wife so it may evolve off its own accord. His reasoning for this: death is an inevitability; death is something humans inherently fear. Whilst Ben doesn’t flinch at the sight of death, a corpse – even of a loved one – he still has an inherent fear of death, one he, just as we all, will never shake. We want continuity in this world, for our legacy to continue. To want this, we have to accept our fragility, and it’s this that lies at the core of letting our created vacuums of self float into a void of reality. We must brave the consequences of letting our children, our ideas live on: they will change, the world you created by and for them is a fading shadow of yourself. Existentially poignant; just maybe a truth – reasoning to start etching out a home in this life. After all, YOLO.
The lasting words about this film must then be to the powers that be. Please, don’t make Captain Fantastic 2 where the younger kids grow up and learn more life lessons. I can do no more than imply the contradiction that this would be, but more so how pointless it will be. Nonetheless, there’s just somethings you can’t control.
Captain Fantastic – Perpetually Resonant
Burden Of Dreams – The Harmony Of Overwhelming And Collective Murder