“Moonrise Kingdom”… Wes side story

Posted on September 22, 2012


Wes Anderson does not make living-breathing films. What he crafts – and I use that word in the artisanal, bespoke sense – are meticulously mounted dioramas, which he then populates with simulacra of living-breathing people. I hate to begin talking about Moonrise Kingdom on what appears a defensive note, but each time I proclaim enormous affection for Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and especially The Darjeeling Limited (has there been a more transcendental use of slow motion in recent cinema than when the brothers race after their train, discarding both their suitcases and their worldly baggage?). I encounter some opposition that these films are too stiff, too formally composed to speak to us on purely emotional terms. But emotion at the movies isn’t always manifest in a warm heart urging a tear down the eye. It’s there, also, in an indescribable fullness of feeling, a certain breathlessness in the face of formidable technique, which is what Moonrise Kingdom leaves you with.

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One of those moments comes in the form of a stunning epistolary passage filled with overlapping voices. Another one arrives as an expression of love through fish-hook earrings, strung with dead beetles. Yet another finds a motorcycle atop a tree. And when a couple (if they can be called that) wants to get married, they confer quickly in the vicinity of a little boy jumping on a trampoline. Moonrise Kingdom is ostensibly the story of a couple of dysfunctional kids named Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward, in blue eye shadow, looking like she’ll grow up to be Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums), who elope and set off a massive search-and-rescue operation – the year is 1965 – but like any other Anderson film, it’s really about those moments. The film is also about heights (a precariously perched tree house, a rescue through a chimney, a climax set on the steeple of a church), about life’s little echoes (a school production of the story of Noah and his ark mirrors a literal flood, accompanied by a near-Biblical lightning strike), and about a turtle named Albert.

The film’s opening sets up the most intriguing of allegories, where an exquisitely rendered tracking shot takes stock of the various members of Suzy’s family – her pesky brothers, and her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). One of the boys sets up his record player and begins playing an LP, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, where Benjamin Britten breaks down a theme by Purcell into its components – woodwinds first, then brass, followed by strings and, finally, percussion. Our initial impression is something facile, maybe that these various constituents of the orchestral piece are like the varied people that come together in this household, each one tuned differently enough to earn Anderson that “idiosyncratic” label he’s so often slapped with. But soon, it begins to appear that the metaphorical significance of the Britten piece is that it takes the young person by the hand and inducts him, in baby steps, into the intricacies of the orchestra, just as the story inducts Sam and Suzy into the rites and rituals of adulthood.

The early scenes, filled with shenanigans of precocious children (many of them at a scouting camp presided over by Edward Norton, who, amazingly, still looks like a boy scout), hint at nothing more than the disaffections of the very young. But slowly and surely, we are ushered into grownup territory. Gore makes an appearance – first as the blood that has stained the bandage on Suzy’s hand when Sam first sees her, and then on a pair of scissors wielded as a weapon. No mere “children’s film” would host such a scene as the one where a beloved dog is silenced by an arrow through its neck. The “non-violent rescue operation” gradually turns savage, as Sam and Suzy mercilessly set out to murder their innocence. They dance and French-kiss and feel each other up and proclaim their love to each other, attired in little but undergarments. These scenes, new for Anderson, are charged with utter disregard for sexual prudery. Bertolucci would be proud.

It’s no longer surprising when Captain Sharp (a wonderfully wry Bruce Willis), who admits that the gravely composed Sam is probably more intelligent than him, pours the boy a glass of beer. And the end shows us the commencement of a surreptitious relationship that echoes the culmination of an earlier one – again, children take over the roles that adults have relinquished. But it would be too simplistic to categorise Moonrise Kingdom as an end-of-innocence movie. It’s more about beginnings of adult relationships – practical alliances between enemies, a lonesome father figure’s adoption of a son, and truce between formerly fractious siblings. And the performances couldn’t be better, whether it’s Tilda Swinton as a corrosive Social Services officer or Murray, who, at one point, decides that his only hope for salvation is a bottle of wine and an axe to chop down a tree in his backyard. He seems to be having the last laugh about the adulthood that Sam and Suzy are so impatient to experience.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English