From this spot, he would fight them off forever.
Moonrise Kingdom is the latest from Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola. I’m a big fan of Anderson’s but I’m also the guy that doesn’t like The Royal Tenenbaums as much as his other films, particularly Rushmore and The Life Aquatic. I’ve only seen it once, though, so maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Anyway, a certain amount of whimsy is to be expected from Anderson. He may have seemed to have reached an apex with The Fantastic Mr. Fox but that was more a Tenenbaumsian family saga than the precise, affected outsider fantasies that Anderson does better than just about anyone else. Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps his most sweet-natured expression of that personalized genre of his. The movie is a quirky good time, but you were maybe expecting that.
Beyond the good feeling Moonrise Kingdom will likely leave you with, it also presents a great take on the purity and madness of young love. Or at least, it’s presenting that sort of relationship as being pure and mad (but in a good way, a way that fits in with Anderson’s little microcosms perfectly). Above all, Moonrise Kingdom is about the purity of love and draws a parallel between two sets of unlikely lovers, one full of hope and one doomed to a dim fantasy of romantic fulfillment set aside by adult considerations. Therefore, the young love is to be celebrated for both its essential purity and its freedom from the complications of age, other relationships, and obligation. Which is, in spite of the fantasism at play in the movie, exactly what young love is supposed to be about.
Our intrepid couple.
This time around, Anderson’s pocket universe is both literal and stylistic. Moonrise Kingdom takes place on a couple of small islands in a heightened version of 1965. The lovers are Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), both “troubled” kids without friends among peers or allies among adults. Suzy’s home life sucks because her parents are loveless lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), sad and embittered by an unseen but deeply felt wealth of memory, loss, and pain. Murray in particular knocks his smallish role out of the park, bringing a deep existential sorrow to Walt Bishop. Sam doesn’t even have a home life as he’s an orphan and even his own foster parents don’t want him. They are both dreamers, totally eccentric, and given to outbursts and erratic behavior caused by emotions they can’t express to anyone but each other. Their meeting is accidental but their courtship inevitable.
Most of the movie is Sam and Suzy on the run from adults and other kids who slowly begin to understand them and themselves a bit better. There are a pair distinct factions in the film, each with its own interests with appendix characters and groups that are introduced over time.The first is made up of Scout Captain Ward (Edward Norton) and his troop of quirky-named scouts, all given additional dollops of personality to bring them to life. It’s a well-used trick here, giving the audience little reason to differentiate between the Camp Ivanhoe troops, except when there is a timely schism with their bullying leader. Eventually we also meet the more organized, militaristic troop at Camp Lebanon, including Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzmann) and led by Khaki Scout Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel). There’s also the Bishop family with the island’s solitary cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) who is a simple but sweet-natured man filled with a loneliness that matches Murray’s sadness pound for pound.
As Sam and Suzy’s rebellious wayfaring draws them in, most of the adults begin to feel a connection to them and even become allies. This is, I think, the point of the film. Sam and Suzy reconnect these characters to something they only dimly remember, but are still capable of feeling profoundly. The most direct case is Sharp with his somewhat plodding protectiveness over Sam, an affection that eventually evolves into a sort of earnest friendship. Sharp understands that his affair with Mrs. Bishop is doomed by adult considerations like family, and invests himself in Sam and Suzy’s determination more fully than the others. Mrs. Bishop does find her way to a better understand of her daughter, but she remains disconnected. Ward is just baffled by the whole thing, but perhaps derives some inspiration from Sam’s scout skill and the whole episode. The little picture of the switchboard operator that adorns his desk at the end of the film is a one-shot payoff to the character that is easy to miss but totally offsets the “back to routine” feel of the character’s ending. Tilda Swinton is barely in the movie and her character is basically a running joke cum deus ex social servicesa. She’s always good but she is also pretty much divorced, from what I could tell, from the central relationships and themes. She’s a plot device but in a Wes Anderson film that means a lot on its own.
I save Murray’s character for last because he is the most deeply affected by the goings on. Walt sort of loses it while his daughter is running around. There’s some slippage or breaking going on with him that he uses Suzy’s disappearance and subsequent antics to distract from. He’s the saddest of the bunch, totally unable to understand or connect to Suzy and Sam and whatever emotion is at the center of their adventures. This is a man who can’t remember love and it makes him feel untethered and inadequate in a profound sense. Like he tells his wife, whatever they have and are is not enough for their children. It’s the deep confusion and malaise of a man who has woken up to find a life emptied of emotional reality. He doesn’t understand his daughter, his wife, or anything else and his listless journey through the movie is the hidden tragedy that colors so many of Anderson’s films. On the altar of quirky, singular happiness… Walt Bishop is the sacrificial dad.
Sam is sort of a proto-Max. Suzy is sort of a proto-Margot.
Anderson’s attention to detail is part of what makes him an auteur. Anyone who’s seen one of his movies will instantly recognize his sense of style, his peculiar shots, his musical choices, etc. One thing that sometimes escapes my notice is his penchant for filling every frame with interesting visual details and mis-en-scene that tells you little stories about the characters. The detail I noted above about Ward’s new picture at the end of the movie is an example. At first glance Ward is simply sitting there beginning another day at his “real job” as camp counselor. Then the camera pauses for a heartbeat on a picture of the switchboard operator and moves on, leaving you with a tiny payoff to a moment, just as brief, a little earlier in the film. Part of every character introduction is an affectionate inventory of the accoutrements that make them who they are. Sam has his scout regalia, Suzy her wallflower combination of books, binoculars, and Sunday School clothes. Sharp has his car, Walt has his axe and his wine. Every one of the scouts has some visually distinct wardrobe flourish or eccentricity in costume, and each one carries a unique weapon during one of the funniest and most daring bits of the film. Being able to tell stories within stories using only objects and decisive photography is basically what makes Anderson a master who totally owns his craft. It is also what makes his off-kilter characters and worlds work at all, especially in Moonrise Kingdom.
Speaking of daring. Anderson goes some places with childhood violence and burgeoning sexuality that, frankly, surprised me a little. The proof of his deft creative hand and the control he exhibits over his projects is in how these scenes never threaten the whimsical and plucky tone of the movie. Yes, it gets a bit dark or edgy but it’s always carefully kept within tone. For example, Suzy stabbing the bully and the death of Snoopy are handled with a sort of ironic detachment mixed with gravitas, a kind of blend that lets something be both sad and funny. Likewise, in a brief moment of earnest exploration, Sam and Suzy do the kinds of things kids do when they start noticing members of the opposite sex. It could have been creepy or uncomfortable, but instead it gets to the truth of those moments (and most people have them as kids, even if they are repressed). It took me out of the movie a bit to see Sam grabbing Suzy’s 12 year old’s chest but I think that the tone is consistent and being jarred a little caused me to pay more attention, to think about what I was seeing.
This kind of gets at why I don’t think “immersion” is always the most desirable element of a film. Sometimes immersion has to be broken to get you thinking. When someone says “I was taken out of the story/movie/etc” as a criticism of a moment or element, I always wonder if this is a real issue. I hate being pulled out of an immersed state by outside distractions, sure, but if the break comes from the media and the break has a possible purpose, I don’t know if it’s a flaw.
Wherever they shot this reminds me of the wooded hilly landscape of where I grew up.
For me, Moonrise Kingdom sort of lightly touches on experiences I’ve had. I’ve never run away from home for a girl. Or wait, yes I have, but it was not so fun and whimsical as this. There’s still an emotional core here that resonates with reality, even if the real version of anything Anderson does can usually be thought of as much worse/darker/sadder/scarier or what-have-you. But I mean, I have been disliked and misunderstood. I have been determined to flout authority. I have been in love with someone as matter-of-factly as Sam is in love with Suzy. Or thought I was. The point isn’t that Anderson’s films reflect our mundane reality, but more that they tend to reflect an emotional reality or at least little snippets of it. Sometimes with very limited scope, yes, but always that quality is present in his work.
I think I’ve spent so much time talking about Wes Anderson because I’ve never reviewed one of his movies before. I’ve seen basically all of them and it’s fun to talk about him as a director via this review. I think you could expect something similar if I ever get around to back-reviewing Michael Mann movies or if he makes another one any time soon.
Anyways. Moonrise Kingdom is a lovely little flick that uses complicated lies to tell simple truths. Which is perfect.
Could that be Last Supper symbolism. Part of me thinks Ward would like that idea.