About five minutes into watching Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” it dawns on to me why Kara Hayward looks so familiar, even though I’ve never seen her before. She’s giving me the exact same sort of intense look Malcolm McDowell opened up “A Clockwork Orange” with.
Now by this I’m not saying Hayward’s character in the film was a sociopath with a taste for Beethoven. But both her character and McDowell’s Alex were extremely driven and impassioned, and Hayward’s expression said it all. If I were filming a new version of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” I’d use Hayward’s face for Big Brother.
(Big Sister is Watching You!)
By leaps and bounds Wes Anderson is rapidly becoming one of my favorite directors. He has been described as a “quirky auteur”, which is Hollywoodspeak for someone who makes films that are difficult (if not outright impossible) to make McDonald’s Happy Meal toys for (the first person who markets a “Reservoir Dogs” lunchbox I will proclaim as a True Hero!).
(Not only that, but Anderson’s a good Texas boy!)
My guess is some time back it occurred to Anderson that he could get his message across easier (and in a much more entertaining fashion) if he took a section of what many blindly refer to as Real Life and painted over it with his personal colors. Anderson is giving us real people and real emotions, but he occasionally feels obligated to condense his characters into figures from an Aesop fable (a system taken to a delightful extreme in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). Like something from a classic science-fiction story, Anderson uproots a small part of the human experience, plants it elsewhere and expands it until, for all practical purposes, it becomes the entire world.
In “Moonrise Kingdom” our brave new world is New Penzance: a New England island community that is more picture postcard than an actual living and breathing community. Anderson’s directorial style has his characters continually posing as if they’re going to be illustrations for a calendar. It’s all so pretty . . . so idyllic . . . and one is left with the uncomfortable notion that a firm poke of the finger will reveal the whole setting to be made of paper mache.
(And the film made me realize something else about Anderson. His films are filled with a lot of Observation. Characters are always watching each other in a manner bordering on surveillance. Anderson tries to give all of this a genteel touch, but I would vote for him to direct a remake of the classic SF mini-series “The Prisoner”. He’s definitely got the mood down.)
In fact, “Moonrise Kingdom” can almost be called a test reel for Anderson’s version of “The Prisoner”. Instead of secret agent Patrick McGoohan trying to escape The Village we have two twelve-year-olds . . . Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward . . . trying to escape the rather Village-like setting of New Penzance. Jared Gilman plays orphan Sam Shakusky (who is a “Khaki Scout” well trained in woodcraft and survival . . . something eerily close to McGoohan’s secret agent role), and Kara Hayward is Suzy Bishop (introverted, intelligent . . . an Emma Peel for the Justin Bieber Generation). All too quickly the audience realizes that Sam and Suzy are the two most human characters in the world they inhabit. Everyone else delivers a single pointed perspective and then emotionally freeze in place as if hit with a “pause” button. Sam’s foster parents treat him like a faulty item purchased at Sears which they want quickly returned for a refund (whereas Sam is far more flesh-and-blood than they are). Suzy, meanwhile, is being raised by two lawyers (fulfilling Ye Humble Unkster’s personal notion of Hell) and has resorted to reading fantasy novels (producing an immediate resonance with YHU) in order to find something preferable to being the only square peg in the Sea of Holes.
Naturally these crazy kids fall in love.
(Pause here for a small sigh.)
I have read a considerable amount of foolishness concerning the romance depicted between the characters of Sam and Suzy. The context of most of these remarks confirms a personal belief that the filthiest minds belong to the people who’re the most openly concerned about Sex. I give Anderson considerable credit for trying to re-introduce the notion of Innocence into a relationship between two people. Way too many people are seeing lust where they should be seeing Love. Sam and Suzy are kindred spirits who are far more interested in the idea of Commitment than they are in performing the dance of the double-gilled armadillo. It is this which makes them appear far more adult than the other characters in the film.
(Compare the relationship Sam and Suzy have with the illicit affair going on between the characters played by Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand. Willis and McDormand are supposed to be the adults, and yet they’re floundering on the rocks of all the emotional and “worldly” baggage which many people unfortunately bring to a romance. If Clemenceau believed that War is too important to be left to the generals, Uncle Mikey believes that Love is too important to be left to the adults.)
(Summation: some of you really need to get your minds out of the gutters.)
Anyway . . . Sam and Suzy manage to escape their Twilight Zone surroundings and set up housekeeping in a secluded cove which they rename Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a wonderful life: watercolor painting, Edith Piaf, a cat, fantasy novels and a portable record player. Naturally it can’t last and they’re discovered and separated, with a Grand Inquisitor (named “Social Services” and played with proper menace by Tilda Swinton) coming to take control of Sam and deliver him to a youth detention center.
If this was how such stories usually ended then the human race would lose over nine-tenths of written fiction. Something in what Sam and Suzy had (call it purity, call it pluck, call it joy, call it Henry) resonates differently among several of the inhabitants of the community, and several efforts are made to re-unite our star-crossed lovers and produce a happy ending. All of this as one king-hell storm is bearing down on the island (Bob Balaban delivers a lot of this information in the nicely wry role of a Shakespeare-like Chorus).
Which is as far as I’ll go in regards to the plot. Suffice it to say that, as usual, Love is given the chance to triumph. And, even more as usual, an awful lot of struggle and fighting gets in the way (but if Love were simple then those ol’ bookshelves would be even more bare, Mother Hubbard).
Here Anderson (aided in the creation of the story by Roman Coppola . . . Francis Ford’s boy) once again demonstrates his skill as an ensemble director. If it helps, think of him as Robert Altman eating more sugar with his breakfast. If Bill Murray is indeed enjoying far more interesting movie roles nowadays, then many of them are in Anderson’s films. As Walt Bishop he certainly doesn’t have as much to do as he did in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, but he becomes a sort of living punctuation mark, managing to appear during the more intruiguing parts of the story.
As Laura Bishop (Walt’s wife), Frances McDormand gives perhaps her quirkiest role since “Fargo”. For reasons which are never fully explained she feels obligated to occasionally deliver messages to her family through an electric megaphone. She also helps Murray in parodizing what a relationship between lawyers is like (when she asks Murray if he’s concerned about the fact that his daughter has run away, Murray responds with a courtroom-conscious “That’s a loaded question”).
(And I briefly want to mention Jake Ryan, Tanner Flood and Wyatt Ralff as the three younger Bishop boys. They hardly have little to do in this film other than be shown sitting around playing board games and listening to music . . . but Anderson positions them in such a way as to draw the eye whenever they appear. If you’re not careful you find yourself watching them instead of paying attention to the story.)
I don’t mind Bruce Willis as an action hero, but I prefer it when he’s allowed to let his gently comedic acting chops run around and play with the other kids. Here he’s Captain Duffy Sharp: the New Penzance “Island Police”. Initially another cookie-cutter member of the community (albeit one who’s shagging Mrs. Bishop on the side), Willis eventually sees something in Sam which produces a sympathetic response. He gets a golden shimmer in his hair and silver shoes for all to see, and the audience knows that he will soon unfold a forgiving heart of purest gold. Here, where a man’s heart should be!
Anyway, Willis’ character realizes that Sam and Suzy have managed to succeed in finding what he and Laura Bishop have totally messed up in looking for. I reveal this much because Willis represents the ideal audience reaction to the relationship between Sam and Suzy.
Edward Norton plays the Scoutmaster of the summer camp where Sam is staying, and does a marvelous job of portraying someone so befuddled that it takes a while for him to realize his entire troop has scarpered. When motivated by crisis he becomes a force for Good, and its only in that motivation that he manages to significantly act and strike a blow for what’s right (if any of this is sounding familiar than it might be because you’re thinking of the role James Fleet had in “The Vicar of Dibley”. Scoutmaster Randy Ward and Hugo Horton would consider each other kindred spirits).
(Speaking of romance, sharp-eyed viewers might be able to spot details of a steadily growing relationship between Norton’s character and the community telephone operator. A nice little cherry on top of the sundae courtesy of Anderson.)
You want to know how old I am? I’m old enough to remember Harvey Keitel as a young actor. It’s always nice to see him in harness, but here he tends to be overshadowed by the other performers. He plays the gruff leader of the local Scouting chapter and, whereas I consider Keitel to be a watchable actor, he doesn’t really fit in as the sort of one-note character Anderson and Coppola have peppered the story with.
Jason Schwartzman has a small but speedy role as Cousin Ben: a Scout Leader (and self-professed “civil law scrivener”) whose job it is to keep the action going in the latter part of the film (a job which involves a great deal of responding to one-liners with subtle zingers of his own).
Which leaves us with a large crowd of younger actors who play the other Khaki Scouts in the film. At the outset they’re as robotic as most of the other characters in the film. But, along with most of the other characters, they become touched by what Sam and Suzy have managed to accomplish, and one of the better scenes in the film has Lucas Hedges (the leader of the gang) delivering what is known in some circles as a “Come to Jesus” speech: exhorting his comrades to rise up in support of Sam as a fellow Khaki Scout. It’s not quite Bogart explaining to Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon” why he’s sending her over, but it’s pretty good on its own merits.
As usual, this being a Wes Anderson film, the soundtrack is as wonderfully quirky as the director. Benjamin Britten shares space with Franz Schubert, Alexandre Desplat (possessing perhaps the most appropriate name for a musician whose work appears in an Anderson film) and Hank Williams. The viewer is especially advised to sit through the end credits and be treated to a rather gentle tribute to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is playful and tricky and possesses many levels and messages (some of which will go over some unfortunate heads). But one message in particular appears late in the film, in a scene where Suzy is reading one of her books to Sam and the other members of Sam’s troop. Here “Moonrise Kingdom” is less Anderson’s version of “The Prisoner” and more his take on “Peter Pan”. Suzy is clearly Wendy, reading to Sam’s Peter Pan as well as the other Khaki Scouts (sitting in for the Lost Boys). You may interpret this as you will. For myself I prefer to believe it illustrates the underlying message of the entire story: that Love works perfectly well . . . at least until the grown-ups come along and mess it up.