By Bryan Nixon.
Wes Anderson has been working toward Moonrise Kingdom throughout his career. Having perfected his craft with The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson dove head first into that quirky and colorful cinematic world he had established by exploring the seven seas in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and India in The Darjeeling Limited. In these films, the camera constantly stares straight into the eyes of adult leads expressing their depression to the audience through dry humor. All of Anderson’s leads are depressed primarily due to family problems and broken homes; the goal has always been to find a way to unite the family, or at least what’s left of it. These idiosyncratic adults act like children and often pout in the only way that Bill Murray or Owen Wilson can. With Moonrise Kingdom, the adults are still depressed for the same reasons (marriage/parental problems, loneliness, and a loss of pride), but Anderson has finally chosen to focus on the wayward children surrounded by these baboons.
The year is 1965, and an on-screen narrator (Bob Balaban) informs audiences of a terrible storm that will soon hit a New England island in the third act. The island is inhabited by a Khaki Scout summer camp headed by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), the vacationing Bishop Family (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Kara Hayward), and a lonely island policeman named Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). When Scout Master Ward and his Khaki Scouts assemble for an early breakfast, they realize that one of the scouts, Sam, is missing. The soon discover that Sam left a note in his tent informing Ward that he had abandoned the Khaki Scouts. “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” Ward informs Captain Sharp about Sam and sends the scouts out on a mission to find him. The scouts do not like Sam and arm themselves with daggers, bows and arrows, and an assortment of weapons for which they plan to use upon finding him. The Bishops soon learn that their daughter Suzy has disappeared as well. Anderson reveals to audiences in a flashback that Sam and Suzy had met once before and they planned to escape the island together as a couple. Sam, an awkward orphan who wears glasses and is quite the survivalist expert, takes pride in taking care of Suzy, an awkward young girl who despises her parents, loves reading fantasy books, and looks at the world through binoculars so that she can “see better.” They are found by the enormous search party cuddling in a tent that they pitched at a beautiful cove on the island. I would like to add that Walt Bishop simply lifts the tent up and over his head and stares at Sam and Suzy curiously and madly, representing one of the funniest moments in Bill Murray’s career.
Sam and Suzy are the heart and soul of this film. Their relationship is a miracle of casting and writing. They embark on a journey to create a family of their own. When they share their first French kiss, Suzy tells Sam that he can touch her chest and says, “I think they’re going to get bigger.” Sam eventually tells Suzy of his life as an orphan, and Suzy responds by telling him that she thinks his being an orphan is a beautifully tragic thing that makes him special; she seems as if she is almost envious of it. Sam eloquently responds to Suzy with, “I love you, but you have no idea what you are talking about.” They are the two most mature characters in the film despite the fact that they are so eager to become adults.
The supporting roles are fleshed out enough that they are not as one-dimensional as they appear. The character arcs are not obvious until late in the film, which makes for a strong third act. For example, Scout Master Ward is initially portrayed as a straightforward leader of children who is stern in his orderliness. Well into the second act, he is ridiculed for being an irresponsible man who is incapable of performing his duties. The third act finds Ward as a broken individual who strikes at his chance of redemption. Edward Norton provides his best performance in years. Walt Bishop is arguably the most one-dimensional character because Bill Murray plays him as indifferent as possible; he is just as miserable when Suzy is home as when she has run away. There is a shot that summarizes his depression and indifference incredibly well: Walt strolls around the house shirtless with booze in hand, grabs an axe from the closet, turns to his young children who are playing and announces, “I’m gonna find a tree to chop down.” The children ignore his declaration and it is clear from his drunkenness that he does not expect them to care. The family is together but it is not unified.
Wes Anderson films achieve a sense of wonder because his imperfect characters live in a perfect and artificial world. The frame is centered as often as possible and the camera typically only moves in straight lines (up and down, left and right, forward and backward). There is a perfectly assembled left-to-right tracking shot depicting Scout Master Ward approaching and speaking to every Khaki Scout before finally sitting at the breakfast table. Colors are vibrant and props are meticulously crafted and placed. The film was shot on Super 16 mm, which provides a grainy and faded yellow glow. Wes Anderson directs with the innocence and playfulness of a child. At this point in his career, I believe that he is so set in his ways that he will always essentially make the same film. Although viewers know exactly what to expect from his films on a stylistic level, he defies expectations by broadening his world and by uncovering new truths. Unlike his previous works that theorize that adults are overgrown children, Moonrise Kingdom shows that children act like adults.
Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Director Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Producers Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven M. Rales, Scott Rudin
Director of Photography Robert D. Yeoman
Editor Andrew Weisblum
Art Director Gerald Sullivan
Costumes Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Original Music Alexandre Desplat
Cast Bruce Willis (Captain Sharp), Edward Norton (Scout Master Ward), Bill Murray (Walt Bishop), Frances McDormand (Laura Bishop), Jared Gilman (Sam), Kara Hayward (Suzy), Tilda Swinton (Social Services), Jason Schwartzman (Cousin Ben), Bob Balaban (Narrator), Harvey Keitel (Commander Pierce)