Review: Moonrise Kingdom
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
Wes Anderson's latest is a triumph...
Wes Anderson's latest film is a beautiful thing to behold, at once a nostalgic journey into the simplicity of childhood as well as a melancholic reflection of how your life at any age is never truly your own. It takes place in the summer of 1965, when twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) - the least popular member of the Khaki Scouts organization - and his peer Suzy (Kara Howard) - the only daughter in a family of sons - run away together. At first the connection seems preposterous; even on the tiny (fictional) island of Penzance, Sam and Suzy have never really met each other. Instead, they happened upon one another the year prior, and had been corresponding by mail ever since, writing letters as simple as "where?" to cement the specifics of their escape plan.
What follows is the sort of simple assumptions about life on the run that only kids could dream of. Sam knows a bit about survival from his Khaki Scout training, but there's an inevitability to the end of their young affair that neither is able or willing to acknowledge. Heading up the search for them are Sam's Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) and Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), though what police squad he captains is left a charming mystery, as he seems to be the only law on the island. When it becomes clear that Sam did not run away alone, they join with Walt (Billy Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) Bishop, Suzy's parents, who are having marital troubles not made easier by the latter's affair with Captain Sharp.
The thin line between childhood and adulthood is as much a staple of Anderson's work as the carefully-framed shots and carefully-detailed set decoration more directly ascribed (two attributes that are commended in the works of others but decried in Anderson by his detractors). One remembers how Royal Tenenbaum takes his grandchildren under his wing as peers, Herman Blume being a friend to Max Fischer more than a father figure, or Mr. Fox's eagerness to collaborate with those younger than himself while hiding his nefarious deeds from his wife and contemporaries. Here, Anderson gives Sam and Suzy total respect in their quest for independence, while still portraying them honestly, and people working towards being fully-formed human beings rather than already being there. His characteristic style nicely compliments both the image of nostalgia pervasive to its '60s setting, but also the understanding that Sam and Suzy's every feeling is much more heightened than they will be even five years later in their lives.
Howard and Gilman were plucked out of total obscurity for their roles here, and one could address the usual business of how they bring honesty and naturalism to their roles not typically present in child performers, and yada yada yada. And it'd all be true, don't get me wrong. But I'm equally fascinated by home seamlessly they blend into Anderson's world, which has been steadily, and increasingly carefully, defined over the last fifteen years. Neither revel in the happiness they find together, but they make sure we know, and their eventual sadness upon separating midway through the film is dwelled upon without resorting to hysterics. Anderson's characters have always seemed as much angry that they have to experience sadness as they are actually sad, a sort of screw-you-all attitude that fits especially well with his almost-teenaged protagonists.
The adults take the same tack, but to different ends. Murray wonderfully portrays a man used to running from whatever troubles him - when Suzy runs away, he goes out back and starts chopping down a tree - and he and McDormand work wonders with fairly little screentime (the movie is only 94 minutes, and they're hardly the main characters). Norton and Willis are incredible, better than they've been in a decade and really reminding you what made them such compelling screen presences in the first place. They're both bachelors, a way of life that has sort of faded from society since 1965, the types who work reliable jobs, are nice enough people, but just never found a way to settle down. They never put up much of a fuss, but there's a perpetual longing in their eyes, knowing that somewhere along the line, they missed out. Anderson loves these types, and Norton and Willis, as cocky as they can be onscreen, are almost naturally sad. Norton is a bigger performer, and Anderson frames him accordingly, typically in contrast with his tiny band of troops, but whenever we get a close-up of Willis, we come to realize just how perfectly suited he is to the screen, and how much he can communicate with so little. He's a major part of the jaw-dropping, visual feast of a climax, and he sells a huge personal transformation with an understatement befitting Anderson's world. It's really remarkable.
All this is without mentioning Bob Balaban's almost-mystical narrator, who knows the history and future of the island without being apart from it the way Alec Baldwin was in The Royal Tenenbaums. Or Harvey Keitel's and Jason Schwartzman's minutes-long roles (talk about making a lot from very little), or especially Tilda Swinton, the closest thing the movie has to a villain, and accordingly named nothing more than "Social Services." This is without mentioning the very knowing attitude Anderson takes towards Sam and Suzy's sexual development, which is just chaste enough to keep from being uncomfortable, but just silly enough to be true. It's to say nothing of the search for paradise that's not unfamiliar to Anderson's work (The Darjeeling Limited explored this quest by way of determination, while this is a much more exploratory journey), but is found and then lost. Never mind the myriad character touches so often disregarded in his work as meaningless whimsy but which communicate worlds about each person.
Moonrise Kingdom is very much in keeping with Anderson's artistic impulses, but I remain fascinated by the ways in which he nudges them ever more forward each time. It's not a matter of the environments becoming ever busier - in fact, I was struck by the absence of busy-ness in many of his frames, building to a climax that's a simple and striking as one could possibly dream. But his camera movement is so much more assured (and complex!) each time out, his ability to tell a whole story in one stationary shot more developed - his natural economy of storytelling is astonishing, a trait sorely missed in the modern, bloated cinema. I was more than simply charmed by Moonrise Kingdom (though I certainly was that); I was bowled over.
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