Monday, June 4, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

No man is an island.

It seems traditional now that a new Wes Anderson film brings critical reactions that are not focused solely on the work itself, but of how it fits in his oeuvre. Anderson’s style, even as it develops and matures – and this extends to characterizations, not just production design, cinematography, music, and editing – has become so identifiable that it overshadows much of the discussion of his individual stories. This either becomes an easy target for those critics who don’t care for his films, or a default through-line for those who appreciate them. With Moonrise Kingdom, the tale of young, troubled lovers who attempt to run away off a New England island, Anderson seems to address this critical tendency, both obliquely and directly (which will be covered in the last part of this review). While this may not provoke a new approach to his work, he delivers his most balanced and sophisticated film to date.

Like many of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom trades in the dichotomy of generations, and how grief sets up camp within us. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), each twelve years old, meet at a children’s production of Noye’s Fludde and are immediately curious about each other, in that first-love sort of way. Theirs is an epistolary courtship across New Penzance Island, in the summer of 1965, in a sequence that Anderson dispatches quickly, matching the fervor of their anticipation and promise. Sam, a beginner Khaki Scout under the seasonal tutelage of Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton), goes AWOL, and Suzy leaves right under the noses of her lawyer parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). When Sam and Suzy finally meet again, there is no tentativeness, and they set out on their adventurous escape. Local police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is then summoned for the search. The Khaki Scout troupe is also tasked with finding Sam and Suzy, though theirs seems to be more a mission of revenge, over those childhood differences that can plague adolescents.
What we learn in Moonrise Kingdom is that the adults are even more damaged and world-weary than the runaways they neglected and must now recover against their will. This low-key but high emotional stakes battle of ideologies and experience is territory that Anderson first explored in Rushmore, but here it seems fuller and more nuanced. The adults are not the antagonists, nor are the combative scouts, really. It’s both the unsteady past and the uncertain future of Sam and Suzy that serve as their biggest obstacles, yet they charge forward. How can these children be reprimanded for making mistakes, when their guardians and elders are no better off? It is because of the adult perspective that Moonrise Kingdom immediately ranks among my favorite coming-of-age tales, which are day-in-the-life stories of rebellious and/or unsupervised youth, such as Stand by Me and The Catcher in the Rye. Objectively, Moonrise Kingdom may not be on the level of The 400 Blows, but that’s not what matters with these types of stories.
The above is really an extrapolation of information contained in the trailer, as I don’t wish to spoil anyone who hasn’t seen the film in its limited release. 

Before moving on to my quasi-thesis, which doesn’t exactly contain plot spoilers either, I would like to touch on one of those unmistakable hallmarks of an Anderson picture, the cinematography. Director of photography Robert D. Yeoman is back after not filming the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox, and his camerawork is more fluid and inventive than ever. There are still the trademark perpendicular establishing shots and the occasional handheld action shots, but the ways in which the camera navigates the elaborate sets by production designer Adam Stockhausen, art director Gerald Sullivan, and set decorator Kris Moran has become even more intricate and layered – and all of this on 16mm, which is both rich and textured.

What I noted in Moonrise Kingdom is how the young lead characters make everything just right in their limited and yet still unknown environment, and this is exactly what Anderson does as a filmmaker – he’s asserting control in a measured way. Those reductive descriptors used ad nauseam, “twee” and “precious,” are simplistic critiques of an artist who is mirroring the tendencies of his characters. Could it be that all of the little embellishments are not filmic tics, but signs of a world in which characters try to maintain what little order they can in the face of something chaotic that upends their established lives?
This film marks the most up-front device of Anderson treating the story as a story, with the on-screen presence of the Narrator, played by Bob Balaban, who provides more orientation than exposition, though his most critical observations are of the coming storm which threatens not only the runaways but the search party, as the entire island faces the threat of flood. This is the most transparent example of the childhood preoccupations of Sam and Suzy catching up to them in unexpected and dangerous ways, their origin story of the Noah’s Flood play being carried out to dramatic results in that same church.
Further touching on what some argue are the repetitive tendencies of Anderson, the opening credit sequence can be seen (or heard, more to the point) as commentary on how one can approach certain themes and address them in different ways each time, which is what the auteur theory is often about. (I do not subscribe to the auteur theory, and it’s worth noting that Anderson’s crew has varied slightly over the years, but I’m allowing that he does have a certain reputation or style.) Suzy’s little brothers play Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, conducted and performed by Leonard Bernstein. Within the film, the piece foreshadows the structure of Moonrise Kingdom, with the different players in the search party (and its fallout) coming into the story and their eventual reunion, but it sparked in me a new appreciation for how deeply personal themes can be explored in different works by the same artist.

As with all of Anderson’s films after his debut Bottle Rocket, how certain characters process grief is a major theme of the story. Only in this latest work do we see a counterpoint, how someone who hasn’t experienced the same loss can be just as disturbed and misunderstood, and that these characters are not the same, but they still care for each other. Sam, an orphan, responds to Suzy’s attempt at empathy with “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”


You may wish to read my detailed breakdown of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Anderson's style evolved.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with you that Anderson "delivers his most balanced and sophisticated film to date." That's pretty high praise coming from me as I am already a big fan of his work. I'm hoping this becomes his biggest hit and make a boatload of money.

    And speaking of boats, I hope it grosses more money than Battleship. Yes that would really make me happy because it would mean we’d get many more We Anderson films in the future and perhaps less Hollywood product lacking soul.

    This review was a joy to read.