Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
Few directors have inspired more enthusiasm in me without fulfilling their own potential than Wes Anderson. Moved and endlessly amused by his debut Bottle Rocket and warm follow-up Rushmore, I’ve patiently flocked to the theater for everything he’s released since, and only in the case of 2009’s wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox did I leave completely satisfied. Though I take exception to a lot of the accusations against Anderson’s filmmaking style — those who contend he’s a cutesy, twee hipster miss how self-reflexively and adoringly he references the French New Wave, Powell & Pressburger, Orson Welles and Richard Lester — it’s hard to deny that the romantically provocative images of The Royal Tenenbaums left little time for actual story or character, or that the pure stylistics of The Life Aquatic made it feel more like a Duran Duran video than a movie. But Fox brought Anderson back to the world of subtle, character-driven storytelling, and that tendency comes to fruition on Moonrise Kingdom, a valentine to childhood, and a lovingly vivid account of the way a mild rebellion of thought and spirit can recontextualize and rejuvenate the community around it. Many of us have always wanted to wander into Wes Anderson’s world and play for a while; now it seems we should be so lucky as to live in this world, with eccentricity celebrated and finally validated.
It’s funny, of course, funny in that off-kilter but intensely quotable way that Fantastic Mr. Fox was — and though it doesn’t chiefly target kids, it’s easy to imagine that it would’ve meant the opening up of a universe to me had it come out when I was a teenager. Rushmore was a great and valuable film because it existed so firmly from the perspective of its central character; the visuals bent to his flawed but eventually redeemed impressions of the world. All these years later, Anderson seems to have rediscovered his awareness of the way people actually interact (wish he’d get the Coens on the phone), so that the dialogue that felt so stilted in the likes of Tenenbaums and Darjeeling now flows with a friendly naturalism. Whereas it seemed that in his trilogy of flawed films from the ’00s, Anderson was unnecessarily fixated upon elaborating on the overgrown children whose evocation he perfected in 1996, he has now mastered something of deeper and (these days) unusual import. He writes about children whose needs and desires and thoughts seem real, and adults whose frustrations and confusions seem equally so.
For some time after Mr. Fox, I got a little choked up just thinking about how beautifully the conflicts of the central couple and family were treated, and how real their insecurities seemed, and what a miracle it was to see all that in a cartoon. If anything, the grandness of Moonrise Kingdom is all the more impressive because not only has Anderson curbed some of his more unfortunate characterization tendencies, he’s suddenly become a master of creating and illustrating three-dimensional people. Tilda Swinton’s Social Services might be a stretched-out joke, but nearly everyone else we meet is vivid, and vividly sad with just the warranted tinge of hope. Worried parents Walt and Laura are presented as perpetually annoyed Bill Murray and doting, aloof Frances McDormand, a cloudy and unhappy couple whose unhappiness doesn’t seem to be pinned on any mutual dislike but in the passage of time; though neither has any showcase scenes, Anderson captures the dread and alienation of a failing marriage so efficiently — lying on twin beds staring up at the ceiling at night, communicating with audible strain about inconsequential things or through windows — you could almost miss the fact that their problems are not merely a counterpoint for the young love story in the foreground, but a primary reason for it.
Laura is cheating on Walt — though the latter seems very close to being aware of it — with local police captain Sharp, and if Bruce Willis doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for playing Sharp I’ll eat my hat. Willis has been great before — his two movies for M. Night Shyamalan, obviously, and also 12 Monkeys, to say nothing of the career-making comedic mastery he exhibited in five seasons of Moonlighting — but I frankly don’t know that he’s ever given a performance with this much powerful ache and loss in it, underplayed masterfully. That’s all the more remarkable in the context of the bright and relentlessly cheery colors and sets surrounding him. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is as much a turning point for Willis as Rushmore was for Bill Murray, presenting a new side to his work that we’ve never seen but that I hope we see much more of. Meanwhile, Edward Norton is an undiluted delight as Scoutmaster Ward, the selflessly dedicated leader of the troops, and leader of the charge to find the missing children. Like Willis, Norton meets Anderson on his own terms with an expertise and wisdom that one wishes he’d demanded more often from actors; the major coup the four adult leads manage here that so many in Anderson’s earlier films did not is that they play the material straightforwardly and with emotion, no matter how “quirky” it may have read in the script. That gives Moonrise Kingdom an earthiness that allows it to linger long in the mind, the very delightful effect Anderson seems to have long been searching for.
But of course, nothing in this film would work without the bedrock of the two central child actors, who are, it must be said, extraordinary. Jared Gilman is Sam, Kara Hayward is Suzy, and there can be no doubt that it’s these two with whom we fall in love. Their courtship is sold ingeniously as the collision of two misfits whose strangeness is magnificently handled — he the restless orphan and artist deliberately abandoning his own group, she the fiery-eyed reader acting out against her staid surroundings — and despite the short running time, we manage to be drawn into the world of each child separately and completely, then drawn even more into the world they create together, which is the most truthful and overpowering vision of romance, adult or non, I’ve seen at the movies in years. Many will name Let the Right One In as an example of young love envisioned powerfully and taken as seriously as it deserves, and I liked that movie, but I cannot recall anything in it as detailed and telling as Suzy and Sam’s dancing by the water, their letters back and forth, their lone serious argument, Suzy’s books (all designed beautifully by the filmmakers) and her reading aloud of them to Sam, Suzy’s fracturing relationship with her mother, Sam’s lashing out against the endless foster parentage of his young life. And most of all, their attachment and desperate hanging on to one another. I don’t know of a movie that’s ever gotten that feeling of needing to cling to the one thing that seems most important so right.
The joyous visuals and color here match most closely to Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, for the immensely multilayered, diorama-like design of a world that nevertheless never seems static or immobile. He steers away somewhat from his trademark intricate compositions, but not enough to either quell the haters or abandon his auteurist style, which is all the better — he’s clearly grown substantially as an artist in the last ten years, but he’s still identifiably Wes Anderson. This is also his first live action film since Bottle Rocket not shot in Scope, and this too seems to liberate him a bit — among other things, as Steven Spielberg discovered with E.T., it draws us much farther into the children’s universe. We seem to be joining them in a real sense rather than merely observing. His influences remain obvious — Pierrot le Fou and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp keep coming up — but what he does with those influences is more playful and winning than ever.
I have some personal investment here beyond my respect of Anderson as a director. I grew up in an island community that at the time my family moved there was not dissimilar to this one, with the tight-knit nature of the occupants and their general wealth (cause of a gulf of privilege between Suzy’s family and many others in the film, keeping things tied to a repeated class-conflict fixation of Anderson’s) ringing true as well as the sense of isolation and the looming hysteria of hurricane season. The town I grew up in is next to unrecognizable now, with surf shops and grocery stores and nightclubs everywhere, and the palpable sense of approaching change affected me nearly as much as the drama and interplay of the characters. That goes somewhere toward explaining why I was slightly taken out of the movie by the action-packed third act; though still strong, funny, and well-directed, it’s so plotty and full of material that I felt I barely had time to think my way through it. I much preferred the calm pace and utter absorption into a singular world that I felt for the first hour of the film. With that said, the conclusion is of course cathartic and masterful, and my objections to the quickened pace shouldn’t be taken as a major critique.
“Idiosyncrasy” is a tricky phrase, and of course seems the major theme of Wes Anderson’s career. He’s doing things that perhaps wouldn’t have seemed so abnormal and easy to cast off as, to borrow a ridiculous phrase I read online, “hipster camera angles” and such if he lived in the era of Jean-Luc Godard and Richard Lester’s peaks, if film were still considered something you played with rather than followed the rigorous rules of. As Hollywood features become ever more suffocating in their big-budget self-importance, we owe it to ourselves to breathe a little and fall in love a little. The sights and sounds of Moonrise Kingdom are capable of instilling all the thrill and newness and excitement of the library books we see Suzy reading throughout. It is there to make us feel young again, and I don’t have to tell you what an immeasurable achievement that is.