Editor’s Note: Will Chadwick reviewedMoonrise Kingdom upon its initial New York/Los Angeles release two weeks ago, but our Denver-based critic Jonathan Lack – an avid Wes Anderson aficionado – has now chimed in with his own analysis of the film.
The word auteur is entirely overused and misunderstood in the field of film criticism, but in its true form, the label certainly applies to director Wes Anderson. There are unique, instantly identifiable tonal and thematic connections across his body of work that could come from no one else, and he has maintained a high level of quality throughout his career. I would even argue his work has generally improved from film to film, his ruminations on the meaning, worth, and make-up of family units deepening in perception and execution as he goes along. Case in point: no other director could make a stop-motion animated film about foxes one of cinema’s most startlingly entertaining and insightful dissections of basic familial concepts.
The development of Anderson’s craft culminates in the spectacular Moonrise Kingdom, his latest and most accomplished work. Here, he expands his thematic ambition beyond the importance of family to explore an idea that is simultaneously more complex and simplistic than any he has yet tackled: why is it we need people in our lives? Is the pain we feel living among others worth the benefits we receive? What are those benefits? How do we process our emotions when we feel cut off from others? Is it truly possible for one person to meaningfully change our lives?
Moonrise Kingdom tackles all this and more. Though the film’s impressive ensemble cast includes characters of all different ages, Anderson understands that the best way to study these concepts is to view them through the eyes of a child. Children are not jaded to the world like adults; their emotions are no less valid or complex, but they feel their way through life on simpler, more direct levels, which we can learn from only if we take the time to stop and listen.
Anderson does this, giving his lead roles to two unknown preteen actors. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman play Suzy and Sam, two children feeling estranged and uncomfortable in their small island community of New Penzance. Anderson develops these characters as relatable, empathetic outsiders quickly and with a great deal of pathos: Sam is an orphan still reeling from the loss of his parents, desperately desiring friendship but rejected by the other kids in the Khaki Scouts for his social awkwardness and obvious superiority in all areas of scout training. Suzy, meanwhile, feels disconnected from her family; her little brothers live in a world of their own, and she no longer trusts her parents because her mother is carrying on an affair. Her aloof nature and severely introverted personality have resulted in several public outbursts that distance Suzy from her surroundings – especially her well meaning but confused – even further.
When we meet these characters, they have run away together, Sam from camp and Suzy from her family. They barely know each other, but they are sure they are in love. It is a concept they have scarcely come to understand, but the feeling is absolutely legitimate, for each gives the other something they have never had before: acceptance. When they first meet, Sam immediately latches onto Suzy for who she is, not who others think she should be, and Suzy opens up without asking Sam to be anything other than himself. It’s as simple as that, and through their relationship, Anderson paints a soft, naturalistic portrait of love in its most basic form.
At first, the adults are confused by Sam and Suzy’s actions, and the majority of the film’s action comes from the grown-ups’ search effort. But eventually – and this is where Moonrise Kingdom starts encroaching on masterpiece territory – the adults begin to realize that Sam and Suzy’s feelings are more than childish whims of rebellion. The adults, and the audience in turn, begin to discover the simple truth I related above: that these children should not be admonished for reacting to the world in unorthodox ways, but celebrated for having the strength to find and rely on a person who makes them feel accepted.
After all, that’s why we bother surrounding ourselves with people in the first place; it hurts sometimes, and the more negative experiences we have with others, the less likely we are to reach out in the future. That’s where many of the adults are at the film’s outset. Suzy’s parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, are wandering through life at this point, so bogged down by a quietly dysfunctional marriage that they can scarcely find reason to invest themselves in anything, including their children. Bruce Willis plays the island’s police chief, a lonely man whose bad luck in love chains him deeper and deeper into a prison of his own isolation. As these characters, among others, observe what Sam and Suzy have found in each other, they come to realize where they’ve gone wrong in life, and take steps to repair or create those relationships that matter most.
Anderson has spent his entire career exploring the ways humans connect with one another, but never with this level of emotional honesty or characters this richly defined. Watching the ensemble craft individuals of such staggering depth and complexity, sometimes with very limited screen time, is nothing short of miraculous. Willis is easily one of the film’s standouts, telling us so much about how this man lives his life and how these experiences affect him with nuance and grace; it may be the most moving performance of his career.
As Scout Master Randy Ward, Edward Norton is even better. Randy is a good-hearted role model completely devoted to the scouts, but it’s not until Sam goes missing that he starts to realize why he cares about this job so deeply. The reasons – that he, like everyone else, needs people in his life and benefits from being able to guide and assist others – are simple, but the emotions involved are not, and Norton brilliantly illustrates every feeling and realization Randy experiences. The character stands among the most fascinating and memorable creations in the entire Wes Anderson canon.
But for the adults – and the audience – to go through their respective arcs, there has to be a clear reason for them – and us – to believe in these kids. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman provide this reason. Anderson has gifted them with strong material and clear direction, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that these young actors are terrific, three-dimensionally inhabiting these characters without acting like anything other than children. That sort of layered naturalism in young performers is nearly impossible to come by, but these two pull it off spectacularly. Anderson never even feels compelled to let the adults pick up the emotional slack, as often happens in child-centric dramas. Hayward and Gilman are the arbiters for their own characters’ feelings and development, and the scenes they share are simply magical.
On a technical level, Moonrise Kingdom is unparalleled. Anderson is completely confident in his own tone and style, and while he pushes his particular dials close to 11 this time around, he does so with awe-inspiring precision, creating one of the most impressive movie atmospheres in recent memory. New Penzance is a world unto itself, with a creative, beautiful design and clearly established geography. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman captures it all perfectly, and for the color scheme and framing, Anderson has borrowed liberally from visual techniques developed for Fantastic Mr. Fox. The remarkable degree of thoughtfulness in the film’s compositions is usually reserved for animation; I doubt there’s a single frame in the entire movie that couldn’t function as a standalone work of art. The musical choices – a mixture of sixties tunes, classical music, and original pieces by Alexandre Desplat – are distinctly Anderson, but seamlessly integrated with the visuals to create an overarching tone so unified and assured that the film is practically hypnotic.
The highest praise I can give Moonrise Kingdom is that it lingers; I cannot stop thinking about the film’s characters, the wholly satisfying way the story resolves, connections I felt to my own life experiences, etc. My estimation of the film grows higher with each passing minute, and I cannot wait to return and immerse myself in the world of New Penzance again in the future. For now, Moonrise Kingdom is the best American film of 2012, and it earns my highest recommendation.
It’s great news that critics and viewers are responding, with enthusiasm and ticket purchases, respectively, to “Moonrise Kingdom.” It deserves both the acclaim and the popularity; for all its high style and exquisite artifice, it’s a tenderly romantic, warmly funny, and robustly physical story of young love and the lessons it holds for older lovers. It brings together many strands of cultural and personal memory, from the inside-the-tent view of boys being boys to the depiction of idiosyncratically smart and artistic kids feeling like outsiders at home to the red-coated narrator (Bob Balaban) who prophetically sets the story in the vast setting of geographical history. In short, it’s an emotional, sensual, and intellectual feast, one of the most extraordinary cinematic experiences since—well, since Wes Anderson’s last movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the continuity from that movie (and all of Anderson’s prior ones) to the new one is the proximate cause of this post.
The actual subject of this post is scuttlebutt: the things that people have been saying about “Moonrise Kingdom” and the way they’ve been setting it apart from Anderson’s other films, as if embracing this one while distancing themselves from the others, suggesting that they approve of the way the young fellow is turning out. It’s not enough to love a movie—it’s important to love it for the right reasons. “Moonrise Kingdom” is not a drastic departure from Anderson’s first six features but rather an intensification of their characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation. To love “Moonrise Kingdom” at the expense of “The Darjeeling Limited” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is to love it lightly. And if there’s one thing that “Moonrise Kingdom” is about, it’s the sanctity of a total, soulful, insightful love.
Of course, it’s normal for an artist’s command to ripen, for his formidable mastery to increase with experience and practice, and, as a result, for his even greater audacities come off with a greater sense of relaxation. Anderson is one of the very few filmmakers whose images are instantly recognizable, whose name could even become adjectival, and there isn’t a shot in “Moonrise Kingdom” that seems anonymous or unidentifiable. Some of the brushstrokes may seem a little freer and a little looser—unless it’s the viewers who, having been primed by nearly two decades’ worth of his movies, are now able to watch the new one with less style-induced anxiety.
The documentary element that’s so alluringly present here (as in the views of the country to which the young lovers flee) is felt even more strongly in “The Darjeeling Limited” and looms even more unstably, on the high seas, in “The Life Aquatic.” But it may be the young actors of “Moonrise Kingdom”—above all, its stars, Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman, newcomers to the screen—who, in their tremulous awkwardness, embody and convey most strongly the element of the uncontrollable and the spontaneous.
And, undoubtedly, there’s an extraordinary tenderness in “Moonrise Kingdom”; its unabashed romantic passion story suffuses it with uninhibited, unambiguous warmth. Of course, their love is no less irrationally unequivocal than that of the Foxes or those of “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”; it’s just mutual, which makes the story happier. The movie, as has been reported widely, is dedicated to Anderson’s girlfriend, Juman Malouf. (I had the pleasure of meeting her in the course of reporting for the Profile of Anderson that I wrote for the magazine, in 2009.) With “Moonrise Kingdom,” the filmmaker is offering a grateful tribute to a happy relationship and to the redemptive power of love itself, which gives rise to a happy ending.
But it’s worth looking again at this ending. It reminds me of the tag ending of F. W. Murnau’s 1924 film “The Last Laugh”—a wondrous turn of fate that reverses a devastating turn of events and sends viewers home smiling—and of a surprising twist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” that was the subject of discussion here last week. Near the end of “Moonrise Kingdom,” the two children, together with the chief of police, are left dangling rather precariously from a blasted steeple. Happily, all three come through just fine (though their rescue isn’t shown). The same thing happens in “Vertigo”—not at the end, but after the movie’s very first scene, which concludes with the detective (played by James Stewart) hanging onto the rickety ledge of a roof for dear life. That scene then cuts to the detective, in his former girlfriend’s apartment, using a cane and wearing a corset or back brace. As a result, we’re meant to understand, of physical injuries he suffered during the rescue to match the mental trauma, the vertigo of the title. In fact, Hitchcock’s entire movie follows from the same deus ex machina as the one that somehow gets the “Moonrise Kingdom” trio home safely, without even so much as a corset, a cane, or a fear of heights (notice the very end of the movie, in which the boy, Sam, leaves the home of his girlfriend, Suzy, via a ladder perched outside her window).
In short, Anderson’s film depicts with a miracle. This is consistent with the movie’s one truly new and original element, its grandly Biblical metaphor, the moral vision that Anderson elaborates around it, and the aptly powerful images with which he realizes it. But it’s a new facet of more or less the same world that Anderson saw and created in his first six films. And if what critics, no less than lay viewers, respond to most enthusiastically in “Moonrise Kingdom,” are kids, love, optimistic fulfillment, and being sent home with a smile, it would be a crying shame.
There’s a piece about the film, and about Anderson’s work over-all, by the critic Kartina Richardson in The New Inquiry that I profoundly disagree with but that I think should be taken very seriously. It’s mainly a personal essay in which she cites her own adolescent persecutions and rebellions and contrasts her own liberating experience, in “the punk scene of Worcester, Massachusetts,” with the world depicted by Anderson:
Around the same time The Royal Tenenbaums came out and everyone fell in love. I was furious. It was so easy for Anderson and his characters. They could exteriorize their outsiderness in simple ways, with dollhouse-like sets, rebelliously simplified camera movements, or oversized fur coats and orange winter hats. The world would worship him and them as a new cool heroes of non-conformity.
As a result, she writes, “When I was 17, Wes Anderson became my number one enemy.” The question that Richardson raises is: What about the raw and anarchic furies of punk and other styles and movements of revolt? Where is the anger, the rage?
Richardson argues that Anderson’s vision of expressive rebellion takes place against the relatively yielding boundaries of middle-class propriety and is sustained by the tools, means, and norms of middle-class life. I’d argue that the most terrifying moment in “Moonrise Kingdom” is the roar of Bill Murray (playing the girl’s father) as he wrenches their tent off its stakes to reveal the young lovers in an underdressed embrace; it’s not just his personal yawp of primal authority but also a reminder of the awe and fear that the young rebels had to overcome, as if they were facing the world’s far crueler and more repressive authorities (as in those places where two twelve-year-olds caught in such an embrace might even be killed). In any case, Anderson’s concluding, catastrophic vision of a Noah-like flood subjects even the relatively lenient authority of 1965 New England liberals to a scathing cosmic repudiation.
Anderson’s movies are filled with fury—but they’re also filled with the results of their own destructive power. He doesn’t romanticize self-destruction, the kind of rebellion that leaves a beautiful corpse, not least because it often entails an ugly survival (as in Owen Wilson’s character in “Darjeeling” or Luke Wilson’s in “Tenenbaums”). He gets the nihilism; he takes it so seriously, as authentic danger, that the crucial element of his movies—his style—can be seen as a way of simultaneously embracing it and warding it off. (His “Moonrise Kingdom” rebel, Sam Shakusky, is in the grip of a most methodical madness—and without that method, the skills of a dutiful scout, he and Suzy wouldn’t have lasted a night in the wild.)
When Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” came out, a few months ago, I discussed his narrow vision of artistic discipline. For Stillman, the orderliness of Astaire-like dance is an actual cure for destructive emotions. For Anderson, style is an expression of those emotions, a way of converting and transmitting them; of reawakening and reanimating the furies, of increasing people’s awareness of their furies and also of the need to put those feelings into action in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or those nearest to them. Those wild emotions are, for Anderson, the motors of love and beauty. They’re what motivate his romantics and his artists, and he, in turn, embodies them in forms that not only embellish but also replenish life—that constructively reinfuse those energies into an etiolated middle-class existence. (And no filmmaker since Nicholas Ray has considered the clash of generations with such power and discernment as has Anderson.)
But what about the horrific Baudelairean drone of boredom? Anderson’s sense of style is no mere decoration but the resistance to banality, the rendering sublime of every moment, the intensification of the ordinary to something extraordinary. He’s a romantic, an ecstatic for whom every moment needs to be infused with beauty and filled with personal significance, with memories and with dreams, in order for it to be worth living (or filming).
And the revelation of the religious sublime, the grandly and ferociously Biblical element in “Moonrise Kingdom” that I discussed here, is only the full-blown emergence of a dimension that was latent in his first six films.
An interesting counterfactual that arises from Richardson’s essay: How would it have been for Anderson’s art had he not succeeded (in the relatively conventional sense of building a career in Hollywood and earning a decent living by making movies)? How different would his movies be if he were working as a microbudget filmmaker, earning a living as a teacher or a freelance craftsman? Of course, it’s a question that can be asked of anyone in any field, but in this context, I’m reminded of Norman Mailer, writing about “Last Tango in Paris.” He made much of Marlon Brando’s opening line—“Fuck God”—and its carnally metaphysical implications. It’s fascinating—and terrifying—to imagine Anderson’s struggles with chaos or microcosmic densities, à la Joseph Cornell or Anton Webern.
Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Focus Features/Everett Collection.