Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” opens with a painting of a house, shifts to a close-up of a dollhouse, then moves onto the activities within the house, the actual house where the painting is hung and the dollhouse is located, the several-storied, precariously placed home of the Bishops, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who live on the northern, Summers End portion of New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in early September 1965. Yet in true Wes Anderson fashion, the actual house seems like a dollhouse. It’s a plaything. There’s an unreality to it, a right-angled, two-dimensionality. Walt and Laura are always in different rooms, the three boys play board games on the floor, while eldest child Suzy (Kara Hayward), on the cusp of adolescence, walks around in short skirts and white knee socks and reads her books (“The Francine Odysseys,” “Disappearance of the Sixth Grade,” “The Girl from Jupiter”), and from the top floor scans the horizon with a pair of binoculars as if she’s in a crow’s nest. Which, in a way, she is. She feels at sea. She’s searching for land.
On the other side of the island, with equal right-angled, two-dimensional precision, Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) of Camp Ivanhoe rises with the morning, chastises his khaki scouts for minor infractions, then sits down to breakfast, with everyone on one side of the picnic table as if it’s a painting of the Last Supper. But one scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), is missing. In his tent, behind a poster, Ward finds a perfectly cut hole. “Jiminy Cricket,” he says, confused and slightly hurt, “he flew the coop.”
The two stories are not unrelated. Sam, with his Barry Goldwater glasses and Davy Crocket coonskin cap (he’s like the mid-1950s), is off to retrieve Suzy, with her miniskirts and raccoon eye makeup (she’s like the mid-1960s), whom he met the year before at a church production of “Noah’s Flood”; and the two, both of whom still have one foot firmly planted in childhood, are running off together to create their own, better world.
Unfortunately, we’re informed by the narrator of the film (Bob Balaban, clad in a Zissou-like red stocking cap) that one of the worst storms of the decade is only three days away. Will the kids be found in time? Will they survive the storm? Is another flood on the way?
During their footloose period, Sam and Suzy fend off an attack from the other khaki scouts, get into their first squabble, make up, read novels, paint, swim, dance to French music, and learn to French kiss. When they’re discovered in a secluded cove, which, in a later watercolor Sam names “Moonrise Kingdom,” they’ve created their own, better world: a world of art and young love.
Exclusion as problem; inclusion as solution
Five years ago, I wrote a piece for MSNBC, “Wes Anderson’s Bruised Souls,” in which I stated the lesson implicit in Anderson’s movies:
Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
I was thinking of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” and Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums”: misfits who don’t mind their misfit status but who must accept their enemies (Herman Blume, Dr. Peter Flynn, Magnus Buchan, Henry Sherman) in order to find final redemption.
For Sam and Suzy, though, exclusion is part of the problem. Neither has friends. Sam is an orphan who lives with uncaring foster parents at a kind of orphan farm. When he goes missing they not only don’t care, they don’t want him back. At Camp Ivanhoe, the other kids, led by the handsome but mean-spirited Redford (Lucas Hedges), don’t like him. This bothers Sam, despite his deadpan expression, more than it ever bothered Max. Max had his crew but Sam is all alone. Near the end of the movie, he confronts Redford, who has, in the interim, been abandoned by his compatriots—who now gather around Sam as the beginning of his amateurish crew—and we get this exchange:
Sam: Why didn’t you like me?
Redford: Why should I? No one else does.
In a typical Wes Anderson story, Redford (and, please, is there a Sundance-related anecdote to that name?) is the enemy Sam must forgive to find redemption. Here, Redford remains an outsider. He knows no forgiveness. Sam has to forgive no one.
Inclusion, however, is still the solution; it’s just not up to Sam and Suzy to provide it. It’s up to the others to include Sam and Suzy. For the first time in a Wes Anderson movie, the world actually adapts to the misfits rather than vice-versa. It makes a place for them. Sam is adopted by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the law enforcement officer on the island, who abandons his affair with Laura Bishop, the realization of which had sent Suzy into the morally ambiguous world of adulthood in the first place, and Sam winds up wearing the same kinds of nerdy clothes as Captain Sharp. (Compare with: the Zissou crew; and Chas and his boys in “Tenenbaums.” Anderson loves his misfits but he loves them more in uniform and at attention.) The real family sucks but the extended family is glorious.
Question: is this a less-profound message than the one found in Anderson’s earlier films? Max and Royal and Mr. Fox all revel in their differences but still grow to accept others; they became more expansive and open. Sam remains the same; it’s the world that becomes more expansive and accommodating. The lesson feels both Pollyannaish and passive. It feels like a step back.
Give me someplace flat
Let me admit, first, that I’m always excited by a new Wes Anderson film. His movies, full of color and quirks and small joys, are uniquely his. At the same time, as I leave the theater and work through what I’ve just seen, I’m invariably disappointed. He has a love of flatness—in character, in cinematography—that I find visually interesting but intellectually stagnant.
When Laura Bishop, for example, searches for Suzy in their home, she calls with her bullhorn to her left, then straight up to Walt on the second floor. Everything is at a 90-degree angle. When Sam outruns the other boys in a clearing, he doesn’t trace a serpentine path. He heads straight out, makes a sharp right, makes another sharp right, then another. Rather than cut corners and catch him, they all follow haplessly behind. His characters can’t cut corners. They’re condemned to right angles.
In this way, his moviemaking accentuates the flatness of the screen by employing head-on shots and profiles and right angles. A Wes Anderson movie using 3-D technology would be an interesting experiment. Would we even be able to tell?
At the same time, what does this two-dimensionality mean? Is Anderson attempting to make a movie seem like a book? Because he loves books? Because his characters love books?
His characters are similarly flat. There’s a deadpan rigidity to them. Anderson needs particularly good actors to bring them to life. Gene Hackman is the classic example. Ed Norton is now another. There’s a sweetness to Scout Master Ward that comes through as he loses, first, one Khaki Scout, then his whole troop, then his commission. As he sinks, as he loses everything, his humanity grows. As a result, he, and not Sam, the protagonist, learns the Wes Anderson lesson in “Moonrise Kingdom”: in losing the world, he gains the world. Sam? He’s too busy creating his own perfect world, which, by its very nature, will be temporary, and as precarious as a big treehouse atop a tall, thin tree.
Maybe this is the key to understanding Wes Anderson. With each film, Anderson, like so many of his characters, creates his own perfect world; then he presses it flat, as if in the pages of a book, to preserve it and keep it for as long as possible.