Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Rather than describe what is probably my favorite scene in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, I want to save you as much first-viewing bliss as possible and describe the scene immediately preceding it, which is perhaps just as powerful in its contrast with what immediately follows. A storm is brewing over the Bishop family summer house and the husband, Walt (Bill Murray), and his wife Laura (Frances McDormand), are lying in separate beds in the same room. To call their relationship “unhealthy” is putting it mildly. Walt is the epitome of aloof and Laura is having an affair with the island cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). With their daughter having gone missing, they stare at the ceiling, while Walt wishes aloud that the storm’s winds would carry him away in judgment. Referencing their pre-teen daughter and her runaway accomplice, Laura says, “We’re all they’ve got.” Walt’s reply is significant in its admission and in what it foreshadows in the next scene: “It’s not enough.”
The marital covenant between Mr. and Mrs. Bishop has bred social dysfunction in their daughter Suzy (Kara Hayward). She’s inherited her mother’s propensity for violence and she’s well aware of the lack of love between her parents. Inevitably, their problems have become her problems. Meanwhile, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is attending “Khaki Scout” summer camp on the island. He’s an orphan with foster parents who don’t really desire his return from camp. Even worse, his fellow scouts treat him like a pariah. Both Sam and Suzy are “problem children” with emotional trauma and well-acquainted with loneliness. Neither of them have friends. That is, until one summer when they meet each other on the New England island at a church performance of Noye’s Fludde — a Benjamin Britten opera using the text from a 15th-century mystery play based on the story of Noah’s ark. What follows between the young pair is an epistolary relationship that is packaged like a middle school crush but sealed with legitimate desperation for an intimate bond.
So the summer after they first meet, Sam and Suzy decide to run away together. What follows, though, isn’t your typical runaway romance. Rather than being inspired by rebellion, Sam and Suzy seem genuinely inspired by their mutual search for love’s embrace. While the communities they run away from squelch the unique gifts they have to offer — restraining them from growing into themselves as persons — Sam and Suzy seem to bring out the best in one another. Sam is willing to protect Suzy at all costs, and in spite of his clumsy appearance, he’s a dexterous guide in the woods. His deft survival skills are matched only by his desire to make Suzy feel special. Suzy, meanwhile, is seldom without her binoculars or books. She possesses the ability to “look closer,” to see that which lies beneath the surface — including the good in Sam. Her observant manner is likened to a magical power that is the stuff of literary adventure. Sam’s and Suzy’s unique gifts promote a bond of mutual understanding. In the loving light of this sympathetic affection, they find safety and hope. Framed through the lens of first love, Sam and Suzy’s covenant bond is about pursuing a love that’s both beyond themselves and restorative of themselves. This is the kingdom they establish.
During a fascinating question and answer session following the premier of Moonrise Kingdom at Cannes Film Festival, Anderson commented that he was impressed as an adolescent when he participated in a rendition of Noye’s Fludde. But what Anderson said next was most striking and seems evident in his excellent film; he suggested that the Britten music he incorporated from Noye’s Fludde is “the color of the movie, in a way.” It’s a remarkable way of attributing significance to the operatic overtones in this film considering the crisp primary colors which always lend a homely, endearing distinctiveness to Anderson’s work. And Moonrise Kingdom is, thankfully, no exception to that wonderful recurrence. However, as Richard Brody notes in The New Yorker, it’s the “religious and metaphysical element” which makes Moonrise Kingdom qualitatively different from the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre.
Anderson has always had a knack for observing flawed characters with a gentle, humane eye; his characters’ social awkwardness is usually thrown into relief by his keen sense of wit and sentimental aesthetics. Moonrise Kingdom is no different with respect to these qualities. Yet, what makes Moonrise Kingdom my favorite of Anderson’s efforts is that it’s not overwhelmed by its own Andersonian peculiarity. Here, it seems that Anderson’s characteristic oddity serves a more holistic vision that is entirely satisfying. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate his previous work, and perhaps Moonrise Kingdom will be a film that works to enlighten Anderson’s earlier films in new ways. But I can’t help but agree with Brody that Anderson’s latest feels like “a leap ahead.”
The best way to describe Anderson’s film is to say that it’s truly memorable: it’s filled with unforgettable images, one-liners, and characters that are woven together with the kind of love that’s brimming with nostalgia. I won’t forget the showdown in the wilderness between the runaway duo and armed scouts; or a fateful meeting in a quirky tree house where the scouts have an honorable turn; or Jason Schwartzman’s priestly role presiding over a scene in which some nickels are meaningfully scrounged together as an offering toward a new kingdom covenant; or the rousing third act in which Anderson delivers what sure feels like a meta-Bruce Willis Die Hard kind of moment; or Tilda Swinton’s character being named “Social Services,” and how Social Services is “not enough,” either; but, hey, “who’s to say?”
At a pivotal point in the film — the one that I’ve avoided spoiling — Sam’s and Suzy’s relationship takes on an important covenantal significance, but the bond they have together is ultimately one that’s not taken alone. In this runaway story, the search for love leads the young ones back to where they came from, to the people that hurt them, and — even more significantly — back to where they first met. It’s aboard the churchly ark, together with the search party, that restoration takes place. Flood judgment is threatened against those who foster hate for the downtrodden — the Noahic covenant within Moonrise Kingdom‘s world is one in which family and friendship is restored, and the orphan becomes an adopted son. It mirrors the Noah story in that the floods of judgment bring about re-creation, a fresh harvest which yields quality crops — and relationships.