Moonrise Kingdom and the Divine Symphony

Moonrise Kingdom and the Divine Symphony July 5, 2012

“It’s the rhythm in rock music that summons the demons,” said the church community of my childhood. So I took my musical thrills where I could find them. In front of my grandfather’s turntable, I air-conducted Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

In the latter, a narrator introduces each instrument and section, then the orchestra weaves those signature melodies into a symphonic harmony that left me breathless.

In the latest film from Wes Anderson World—Moonrise Kingdom—Britten’s orchestral guide becomes the central metaphor for the way the world should be. Through that lens, all of Anderson’s films (especially The Royal Tenenbaums) make more sense.

No American filmmaker—not even Woody Allen—has a more recognizable aesthetic or a stronger authorial voice, and this may be the most, well, Andersonian movie yet. His style recalls storybook illustrations, puppet shows, school-project dioramas, and community theatre productions. And in his out-of-tune communities, one rowdy musician—a somewhat holy fool — plays a theme that inspires the rest of the orchestra toward harmony.

Moonrise Kingdom begins with an Our Town-style narrator (Bob Balaban, brilliant!) announcing that an apocalyptic storm will soon strike this New England scene.

Then we meet Sam Shakusky, an orphan running from boy scouts and foster parents. More accurately, he’s running after something—an ideal of love and support that he hasn’t found in foster homes. Played matter-of-factly by Jared Gilman, Sam is a compelling Khaki Scout gone AWOL with camping gear and his dream girl.

She’s Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), a teen disillusioned with her family. Her father (Bill Murray) and mother (Frances McDormand) are lawyers who know the letter of the law, but they’ve forgotten its spirit. Sensing that Sam sees her clearly, Suzy drops everything like Simon Peter dropped his fishing nets, to follow Sam.

In his coonskin cap, Sam is an American hero embodying endangered ideals. Suzy’s Sunday school shoes have implications of their own. Together, they trigger disorganized pursuit led by Captain Sharp, a lovelorn police captain played with affecting humility by Bruce Willis.

Moral watchdogs will bark at these under-aged kids on their hideout honeymoon. In doing so, they miss the greater crisis: Who can these kids reach out to for help? Not these unfaithful, cacophonous adults. As in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, another film about the consequences of a generation that called self-indulgence freedom, they have no moral high ground.

At least Sam and Suzy have a sense of the sacred: a love characterized by commitment, tenderness, forgiveness, service, intellectual stimulation, and, yes, physical intimacy. Performed for these pursuers—the very people who have given these kids good reason to run—this Romeo and Juliet’s adventure in intimacy is something like the play the Shakespeare’s Hamlet stages for his uncle: It’s a picture that just might “catch the conscience.”

As the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote:

By performing the divine symphony, all the instruments of creation discover why they have been assembled together. Initially they stand or sit next to one another as strangers, in mutual contradiction. Suddenly, as the music begins, they realize how they are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful—in symphony.

In Sam and Suzy’s declaration of love, the music has started. Let the great reconciliation begin!

Hope ignites in flickers of conscience. Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton writes journal entries with a devotional quality. He prays, “Please let us find [Sam] tomorrow. Don’t let him fall off a cliff.” His rowdy scouts learn how to achieve a non-violent rescue.

While there may be no conscience in the ferocious orphan-buster named Social Services (played by Tilda Swinton), compassion may yet ignite in Suzy’s parents.

Last time we saw an aerial view of Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) lying down, he found himself on a hotel bed beside a flirtatious young newlywed, telling her about his difficult duties as a husband and parent. Here, Murray’s Mr. Bishop lies in a single bed, separate from his wife, gasping in despair like a fish on the beach. Whenever Bill Murray lies down and murmurs sadly to himself, I recommend we listen.

This could have become another case of “adults are stupid, so rebel, kids, rebel!” American movies so often champion independence and show traditions like marriage, family, ritual, and religion as empty and oppressive.

But independence is not symphonic.

Like Merida in Pixar’s Brave, these kids must learn that abandoning family and law isn’t the answer. They’re right in what they want, just immature in their approach. Sam deserves the reprimands he receives, and Suzy’s idealization of orphanhood earns a stinging rebuke.

For all of their insights, the children need the community that assembles in the “ark” of that storm-battered church. They need loving fathers and mothers, so they aren’t swept away. What will the grownups hold on to, to keep from falling?

An answer is suggested in the film’s climactic image—bold as a woodcut, resonant as a hallelujah chorus. It left me thunderstruck.

One critic wrote off Moonrise Kingdom: “[It’s] like watching a grown man play with dolls.” He’s right, to a degree. Anderson gives this story a cartoonish, childlike aesthetic that has the sketch-like clarity of a Charlie Brown parable. (Remember, Anderson used Peanuts music in The Royal Tenenbaums). As Madeleine L’Engle said, if an idea is too difficult for grown-ups, “then you write it for children.” Thus, that critic’s complaint sounds like Royal Tenenbaum himself dismissing his daughter’s elementary school play for not being realistic.

Early on, Sam asks Suzy about her binoculars. She answers, “They help you see things closer, even if they’re not far away.” “Hmm,” says Sam. “That sounds like poetry.”

It certainly does.

In lavish close-ups, Anderson contrasts a world in disorder with a well-pitched campsite, where everything is in its right place. Perhaps this childlike play is just the thing to catch the conscience of grownups like me, to make us stand and cry out for light.

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of four novels including Auralia’s Colors, and a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” — Through a Screen Darkly. He is an award-winning film reviewer, a magazine editor, a speaker, a blogger, and a member of the Chrysostom Society. He’s celebrating 16 years of marriage to a beautiful poet. He’s writing a new novel and working toward a future in which he teaches creative writing and film studies.

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  • Joe

    lovely. a poem itself, jeffrey.

  • Bravo, Jeff…we saw Moonrise Kingdom the other evening and simply adored it…a truly beautiful film.

  • “Sam Shakusky, an orphan running from boy scouts and foster parents. More accurately, he’s running after something”. Well said. Your reviews often help me understand why I like the movies that I like. Thanks Jeffrey! As usual this is written with great clarity and insight.

  • Since this isn’t playing in our small town, we might catch it this weekend in Austin. Except we have the rare chance to see the original Tron on the big screen. It’s hard to pass that up.

    • Hey, it’s in FBG! At least it was last weekend. Check the Stagecoach Theater online.

  • I felt, watching (living) it, that this was one of the most profoundly theological film experiences I’ve ever had. Thank you for helping me understand why.

    • Charlie

      Penzance means ‘holy headland’.
      Suzy’s family name is Bishop.
      The ‘flood’ cleanses and baptizes and washes, resulting in a forgiveness and peace.
      St. Peter writes of Noah, like us, being saved by that washing.

      Yes, a profoundly religious film.

  • I’m quite the fan of Prokofiev myself. A couple years ago my wife and I went to Seattle to watch the ballet Romeo and Juliet with Prokofiev as the music, and my breath was quite taken away. Felt like the first time I heard Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Gymnopedie, or even post rock.

    Either way, this sounds great. Unfortunately my movie theater never played or will play it, so I’ll probably have to wait for DVD.

  • Not only do I love this movie, I love this review.

  • Lindsey Crittenden

    Jeffrey, I loved this movie without really completely being able to say why. You helped me see what I couldn’t say. (And I love that art work, just like Color Forms!!) Thank you!

  • Jeremy Landes

    Beautifully composed – couldn’t even find a synopsis, which is great. Loved the L’Engle quote you used. You really helped me appreciate the film’s qualities.

  • We just returned from the movie, which reduced me to tear at the end. And yours was the perfect review to read. Thank you for appreciating the purity and sweetness of the film.

  • “Whenever Bill Murray lies down and murmurs sadly to himself, I recommend we listen.” Good advice, Jeffrey.

  • Bob Hickman

    This is a rare magical movie matching the perfection found in Higo, the Wizrd of Oz, Hook, and The Sandlot. All very different movies but all reaching into the viewer and touching the heart. How can we ask for anything more. And your review is also perfect. Thank you

  • Rich

    I really enjoyed this review, you are quite the gifted writer Jeff!

  • James K.


    I found the “marriage” scene to be one of the most disturbing things I had ever seen on film. If it had taken place in a milieu of childlike innocence (like when Tom Sawyer was “engaged” to Becky Thatcher), I could have stomached it, but given that they had already felt each other up, talked about an erection, and slept in close proximity to each other, the scene raised in my mind the real possibility that they wanted to consummate the relationship at age twelve. I knew that would not actually happen, since the movie was rated PG-13 and not NC-17, but just the hint of it was skeevy.

    At least this review didn’t try to claim the movie was a comedy. It had some comic moments, but the overall tone was bleak. I thought for sure it would end with the death of one of the children (probably the girl) and was surprised when it did not.