For those of you lucky enough to be experiencing a film by Wes Anderson for the first time, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is perhaps his most idiosyncratic, bombastic film, proving either utterly charming or totally twee for the budding ‘Wesbian.’ In previous years, Anderson has fallen neatly into a soft, geeky niche – appealing to mainstream audiences and arthouses alike on account of his relationship with mega-stars (Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Owen Wilson), and his incredible ability to make the uncool, cool. It seems to me that this, his latest effort, is his most accomplished statement – the most ‘Anderson’ of all Anderson’s films – seeming to abandon all reference to logic and normality for the safety and security of trusty conundrums and quirks.
“This ‘meticulous image’ is now Anderson’s mainstay, showcasing a photographic aesthetic.”
Previously looked at by R|R here, Anderson’s early films focused on the wealth of sentiment in camaraderie and friendship, privileging the youthful naivety and hilarious ignorance of his main characters over any preoccupations regarding style and aesthetic. However, over the years Anderson has forged irrefutable pockmarks on the spotty face of film style – managing to reproduce across his entire oeuvre a plethora of techniques from pin-point blocking (explained below) to precisely perpendicular framing. Anderson’s end product is highly pleasurable to the eye – a meticulously planned aesthetic one would think was orchestrated by someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Characters and sets are dressed for the audience in a knowingly theatrical way, preserving a two-dimensional relationship with the camera as it tracks sideways in straight lines. Shot/reverse shots do not apply to Anderson’s style, as he privileges interactive portraits of characters over conventional camera angles and continuity editing techniques.
This ‘meticulous image’ is now Anderson’s mainstay, showcasing a photographic aesthetic which sees characters fastidiously staged to create a harmony in blocking: the position and movement of actors on stage for dramatic effect. Moonrise Kingdom continues and expounds these stylistic rituals, almost to the point of no return (see Fig. 2).
The story spirals around a love affair between two 12-year-olds – both anarchically reckless; both recklessly in love. Anderson’s narrative hip-hops around, showing us Sam and Suzy’s romantic rendezvous before we know anything of their irrevocable love. They correspond with love letters; their short, sharp exchanges are rallied back and forth like a tennis ball, showcasing the kind of brazen, pre-pubescent confidence common within Anderson’s films.
“Suzy is rebelling against the comfortable, middle class life of her lawyer parents.”
At first, they just seem like two kids with nothing to lose and everything to discover, but with their forbidden love comes jeopardy. During a phone-call that sees the authoritative characters find out of Sam’s abandonment by his foster parents, the audience also invest in his uncertain future. The reason for the two staying together becomes more than just childish folly, but a tangible plot device; their love saves Sam from certain misery at an orphanage, presided over by Tilda Swinton’s androgynous ‘Social Services.’
What the couple share is a disregard for authority. However, while Sam has lived the difficult life of an orphan, Suzy is rebelling against the comfortable, middle class life of her lawyer parents and three brothers. In the films inimitable opening sequence, Anderson’s observational camera shows us the physical makeup of Suzy’s home, tracking between adjoining rooms and grounding each of the characters in a likely milieu (see Fig. 3)
The three boys are either playing board-games or listening to Benjamin Britten’s classical music for kids, obviously; Bill Murray’s beleaguered father-figure Walt is endlessly and languidly drunk on red wine or reading a newspaper; and Francis McDormand’s ambivalent Laura sneaks out of the house to meet with her policeman lover, played by Bruce Willis. What isolates Suzy from these, her nearest and dearest – is their tendency towards routine. Their monotonous lives are played out over and over again in this opening sequence, leaving little room for the excitement craved for by a 12-year-old girl. Tellingly, the camera elevates upwards through the roof of the house only to reveal Suzy on the balcony, looking through her binoculars at a better life on the horizon.
After escaping together into the woods of New Penzance Island, Sam and Suzy live an idyllic, transient lifestyle that sees them attempting every comfort, despite the need to stay on the move. In this part of the film – for me the most successful in solidifying the lovers’ relationship – they talk about everything and nothing, musing over pet-hates and books they like to read. Without a care in the world they drift lazily through potentially hostile territory – primarily because of Sam’s superior survival skills as a Khaki Scout. He looks after Suzy in the old-fashioned way, providing her with a wealth of comforts and niceties – at one point cooking her hot dogs from scratch. Scout Master Ward even commends Sam on his survival techniques, remarking that his beach-side love-nest is “one of the best-pitched campsites I’ve ever seen.”
“Much humour in Moonrise Kingdom comes from the order and affable incompetence of institutions.”
At times, their relationship seems platonic, with the same bickering and nonsensical tomfoolery of any childhood friendship. What ties them together is something deeper – a moody likeness they see in the dark of each other’s eyes, lovingly framed by Anderson in alternating close-ups. When it is announced that the pair have decided to get married, the situation is obvious: ‘Well of course we’re getting married!’ The thought seems not even to have crossed their romance-stricken minds. It is the hilarious part of the ‘priest’ – played by Jason Schwartzman – that brings them back down to earth, forcing them to consider the faux vows (for this isnt even a legally binding ceremony) they are about to take.
What seems easy to overlook is that Wes Anderson’s films are principally regarded as ‘comedies.’ Like many of his films, much humour in Moonrise Kingdom comes from the order and affable incompetence of institutions; primarily the rules and routines of the Khaki Scouts. Edward Norton’s hapless Scout Master Ward is completely entrenched in this insular world. He knows nothing else – he lives and breathes Khaki Scouts. Since this is the only Anderson film that has been given a date – 1965 – it seems as if Scout Master Ward is framed by the ongoing Vietnam war (1959 – 1975). His hapless institutional commitment, crossed with the anarchic children, mark the shadow of social upheaveal that was about to sweep across America. All of Anderson’s other films happen in a non time-specific parallel universe, so perhaps the date is significant to mention, although not integral to the story – apart from dating the beautifully period costumes, of course.
Earlier I mentioned that with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson had abandoned normality and logic for quirks and conundrums; what I mean by this is that his characters seem to have completely drifted off into their own worlds – detached from the normalities of everyday life. Even the location of the film – the fictional island of New Penzance – was deliberately chosen by Anderson because of its remoteness. It’s little wonder the inhabitants of this small island are quirky. Scout Master Ward frequently recites into his audio diary the happenings of the day, usually emulating a military-like fashion in the sort of way a boy playing in his bedroom would do. Any strands connecting him with normality seem completely severed.
Similarly idiosyncratic, Bruce Willis’ aptly named Police Captain Sharp represents a further injection of institutional comedy. At first his ambivalence towards the severity of Sam’s disappearance is funny – an obvious oxymoron for the small-town policeman. It soon arises, however, that Suzy is also missing – meaning an elopement – something near and dear to his own heart given his fleeting cigarettes with Suzy’s mother. Interestingly, this relationship never wanders further than the local bench, sneaking away for juvenile meetings like 12-year-old children. With this news, Sharp instantly lurches into gear, ‘deputising’ a number of Khaki Scouts to embark on the so-called ‘rescue mission’ to bring the couple home. What follows is genuinely hilarious – with each of the scouts taking their roles entirely seriously, adopting oddball weapons and motorbikes in search of their quarry (Sam is unanimously the most picked-on of all the scouts).
As usual with Anderson’s films, sentiment is not overlooked. Each of the characters have a distinctive psychological arc, usually delivering them from some kind of crisis and landing them safely in a position of likeable reputation. Scout Master Ward is branded hapless, both by the audience and his own Scout masters alike (a cameo by Harvey Keitel). When a deadly flood threatens the larger camp on an adjoining island, Ward calmly rescues the Scout leader from his flaming cabin and helps the hundreds of scouts to safety, thus solidifying his reputation as a hero amongst the clan.
Captain Sharp begins the film as a single lover and lazy policeman, only to take on the biggest of responsibilities in adopting Sam and thus saving the film from tragedy. He becomes the unlikely father-figure the film sets him up to be, sharing man-to-man chats with Sam about Suzy, even letting him have slugs of beer as he hands on swathes of bad advice. Eventually Sam becomes Sharp’s real-life deputy, even wearing his goofy, small-town uniform.
“What the film accomplishes over and above its allergic reaction to verisimilitude is the overwhelming humanist values it hammers home.”
Although Suzy’s parents Walt and Laura don’t conventionally make-up with Suzy, they do act as the catalyst for Sam’s adoption – advising Captain Sharp on the complicated legalities involved. Not only does this bring them together in our eyes (earlier in the film we see them bond over laywer speak whilst in bed), but proves to us that the affair is over. Perhaps this has been the source of their unhappiness all along?!
If the shackles of idiosyncratic routine and fuzzy sentiment are too much for you to take, I think it best to stay away from Moonrise Kingdom. However, what the film accomplishes over and above its allergic reaction to verisimilitude is the overwhelming humanist values it hammers home. The lovers, fathers, mothers and friends cling together like primordial glue; regardless of whether they get on, they get on with their lives. This film magnanimously reinforces the ties that bind us all together, and in that sense, with Moonrise Kingdom Anderson demonstrates yet again his touching sentiment for the human condition.