The Moviegoer: "Moonrise Kingdom" and the Covenant Ties that Bind

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.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • https://twitter.com/#!/LoveLifeLitGod KSP

    I’ve been reading your reviews for a long time, Nick. They have always been well-written and insightful. This one just might be your best. I can’t wait to see this movie! Thank you for a wonderful introduction to it. The fact that I have long loved Britten is icing on the cake.

    P.S. Your opening paragraph brought to mind the film In the Bedroom. If you’ve seen it, do you see any parallels there, I wonder?

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks, KSP. I really appreciate that. I know for sure I had some prayerful help from friends. And I’m really please with how this one came out.

    I know what you mean by referencing IN THE BEDROOM, but ultimately they’re not really comparable, mainly because they’re so tonally different.

    I can’t wait for you to see this, though. Now that I know you’re a fan of Britten, this should be a no-brainer when you get the chance!

  • http://thinkchristian.net/ Josh Larsen

    Good stuff Nick. Interesting reading of the movie’s use of the Noahic covenant. Is Moonrise Kingdom Anderson’s best? I need a second viewing before I go that far, but I’m open to it.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks, Josh!

    I think I would probably be wise to say something more like “it’s my favorite.” But I do at least wonder if Brody has a point in the comment I referenced.

    That said, I’m also eager to return to his previous work, because I feel like MK may have connected with me–given me something to latch onto–that I can then take with me to his previous work. And, who knows, it may have the effect of making older stuff like new for me, perhaps even surpassing MK.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I’m torn on what my favourite Wanderson is because they’re all so tonally distinct. The three I’ll come back to the most often are this, Royal Tennenbaums, and The Fantastic Mister Fox.

    MK is easily the most charming to me. The two kids’ have an almost-but-not-quite asexual chemistry, as if their relationship—while founded on them being a proper fit for the male/female lego—is so much more bound up in them being destined for each other as personalities rather than as sexes. (Even their sexual expressions seem chaste and subdued.) And not destined in any sort of Norns way, but more in the sense that their combination of traits is fitting, seamless, and magnetic. Even when they are disagreeing (“I love you, but you’re wrong”), they do so in a way that is sweet and durable.

    I will want to own this and watch it many times over the years. And I will want to show it off, evangelize. This is my favourite movie in a long time.

  • Ethan

    Fantastic review, Nick. I saw this over the weekend and loved it, and now I love it tons and tons more. It’s definitely my favorite of Anderson’s films.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Seth: Great thoughts on Sam and Suzy’s relationship. And I agree: I’ll be returning to MK often.

    Ethan: Thanks, man! I definitely appreciate it!

  • Charlie

    Sir,

    Thank you for a well-reasoned and written essay.

    You’re on to some good stuff here. The rebirth of all things in baptism, the cleansing, the renewal (even Suzy wears an uncharacteristcally sunny yellow, post-flood) of people and relationships speak to these theological truths found in MK. In a longer format, the other religious aspects such as the meaning of Penzance (“holy headland”) and the fact that Suzy is a Bishop could come into play as well.

    Thank you, again.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks for the kind words, Charlie.

    Great call on “Penzance.” I’ll definitely have that in mind for future viewings/writing.

    And you’re very welcome!


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