Wes Anderson movies have a great knack for sneaking up on you. On the surface, they are very controlled, almost hermetic, but inside they’re full of dark, messy, human issues. I like how he commands his pictures, but it’s the emotional undercurrent that makes them more than pieces of stylistic razzle dazzle. From the perpetually unsatisfied Dignan of Bottle Rocket to the tragically stunted Tenenbaum clan to Mr. Fox and his fear of aging, there is sadness to Anderson’s intricate design. His characters appear to be ostentatious caricatures, but his movies are all about showing how they’re not. Moonrise Kingdom is no different and ranks as one of the writer/director’s best.
Co-written by Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited), Kingdom is set on the fictional island of New Penzance in 1965. 12-year-old Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) runs away from the Khaki Scouts to rendezvous with his secret pen-pal and fellow runaway, Suzy (Kara Hayward, also a newbie). Despite their innocent longing for each other, both pre-teens have their own reasons to flee. Through a virtuoso montage of their year-long correspondence, we learn more about these characters than they could ever tell us. Suzy is a bit strange (and crazy-eyed), and her self-involved parents mistake introversion for something clinical. Meanwhile, we learn Sam is a picked upon orphan whose behavior does him no favors. They’re kind of perfect for each other, even if they go about being together the wrong way.
But I’m happy Suzy and Sam are so intent to find a special hideaway from the world because their disappearance causes such a hilarious uproar. While Sam and Suzy awkwardly explore young love, the adults on the island go a little crazy. Edward Norton is the scout master. Bruce Willis is the local law enforcement. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy’s skirmishing parents. And they’re all pretty sad and lonely. Sam and Suzy’s adventure is really an excuse to explore the grown-ups and their situations. It’s a way to show not only what happens when you lose your innocence and life wears you down, but also how that can seep into the lives of children. It’s no wonder they run away.
Like all of Anderson’s work, this movie is beautiful. Anderson’s longtime DP Robert Yeoman does some fantastic work. It is chock full of trademark tracking shots, zooms, and slo-mo, but the period setting allows for some softer flourishes, faded colors, and a nice grainy texture. The movie looks like the cover of an old LP, something likely on the film’s soundtrack. The two leads are great discoveries with surprising chemistry for being so young. Anderson pulled this trick before when he cast Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. Schwartzman also has a small but stellar appearance in Moonrise Kingdom. But I think the best performance, in a movie filled with great performances, is from Bruce Willis. Whenever Willis works with a director who has a strong voice (Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys) he shines. Here he is subdued and gloomy, but very funny without falling back on his persona.
There are countless classic moments permanently etched in my brain. The opening introduction is great, using pure visuals and music to establish this new universe. The on-screen narration from Bob Balaban is genius. It’s another unique and apt touch. The score and the soundtrack are tremendous. The songs always serve the story, and the score treats every character like an integral piece of the orchestra.
Even when the final act turns into a mad cap comic strip come to life, I was so enamored up to that point that I just went with it. It was like a live-action bit of Anderson animation. My only gripe is that the resolution is rather predictable, but it’s arrived at in the least obvious way and therefore easily forgiven. Moonrise Kingdom is crazy hyper-literate fun crafted with care. It recognizes, celebrates, and mourns those moments that can never last, but thankfully the movie will be around for years to come.
(Also, best credit ever: Tilda Swinton as Social Services)