“It’s been proven by history: all mankind makes mistakes.”
Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom is a movie of variations. It’s no secret; he announces it as such in the opening scene which introduces us to the main characters while a children’s record explains how a composer uses variations of a theme to build a piece of music. Each section of the orchestra has its own version of the them and when they are played together they transform into a majestic and intricate song. That is, essentially, what Anderson does with his characters in the film. They’re all playing slightly different versions of a theme and they mix and match with each other until they come together at the end to become a cohesive whole. Of course, this cohesive whole is about being uncohesive and lonely and finding a way to make that work or come to terms with it. It’s a beautiful film made with Anderson’s typical attention to mood and detail with touches of humor and sadness and, most impressively, both at once.
I wasn’t always a Wes Anderson fan. I saw The Royal Tenenbaums at too young an age to get what was happening in it and I only got five or so minutes into Bottle Rocket before I couldn’t take the quirk any longer and had to turn it off. In the past four or so years I have caught up with every Anderson movie except for The Life Aquatic and, though I only loved one, I became more and more interested in what he was trying to do and say. The trailer for Moonrise Kingdom was fantastic and convinced me to make it my first Anderson in a theater. I’m glad it did. Moonrise Kingdom is, perhaps even more than Fantastic Mr. Fox, the perfect distillation of Anderson’s qualities as a writer and director. The opening shots are those horizontal tracking shots he likes to do so much. Here they make it seem like the characters are living in a young adult fiction book from 1956, the year in which the story is set. This tone carries throughout, as two “troubled” kids run away from their lives and trek across a scenic New England island to find a place all their own. On their trek they fall in love, because what else are treks good for? Meanwhile, the adults on the small island mount a search for them and must come to terms with their own failings as humans. Adultery, inadequacy, and loneliness pervade the adult characters, so it’s no wonder the kids are so screwed up.
Or are they? We keep getting clues that these kids maybe aren’t as screwed up as the adults believe them to be. One, the boy, is an orphan sent off to sleepaway camp for the summer and “not invited to return” to his foster family. This seems more like a failing of the adults to adequately deal with a delicate case than it does a truly “troubled” child. The other, the girl, barely registers as doing anything too far out of the ordinary for a tween. And her home situation, a marriage that is pretty clearly not working, can’t help either. A large part of the film is the kids figuring out that they can be happy with each other, something the adults in their lives haven’t demonstrated at all. That’s not to say that the adults are the bad guys in the film. They are more pitiable figures than despicable ones. The script handles six fully realized characters and does so with remarkable swiftness and care.
Finally, a word on the actors. I am not a fan of Ed Norton. In my estimation he’s been good only twice before (American History X and his uncredited role in Kingdom of Heaven). There is something about Anderson’s dialogue, however, that really lets Norton shine. He plays the sad sack camp counselor of sorts. He doesn’t really have a lot going on, so he throws himself into the position with all of his muster, running the camp like a mini-military base. The tracking shot which introduces us to Norton and his charges is classic Wes Anderson and maybe the first funny thing Norton has ever done. He plays the character with a certain earnestness which is undercut by his loneliness that really works. Bruce Willis is an odd choice for an Anderson movie, but it mostly works. He plays his sheriff role like an older, more settled version of his John McClane character. He, too, is sad and lonely and carrying on an affair with the always wonderful Frances McDormand, the mother of the runaway girl. Which brings us to the kids. They’re the most important element of the film and they do their jobs quite well. I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson kid that acts like an actual kid and that holds true for this film. Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman (Suzy and Sam) perform admirably, developing a fun chemistry and displaying the characteristic awkwardness of new love. They say things that few kids would ever say, but they say them well and it works for the film. Other actors of note include Bill Murray as Suzy’s father (always good) and Jason Schwartzman in a hilarious bit role. Tilda Swinton is good but doesn’t get enough to do, unfortunately.
Moonrise Kingdom is a sad and funny movie of loneliness and human misunderstandings. It’s a beauty of a film, with all of Wes Anderson’s typical technical touches (the slow-mo group walking shot is perfect) intact and a slew of great characters played greatly by great actors. It’s the best movie of the year so far and a virtual lock for my upcoming top 100 list revision.