Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Running Time of 94 Minutes
Although Wes Anderson is, of course, a filmmaker, perhaps a more apt description would be that he is a curator. If each of his films is an exhibit, Wes selects the various unique elements with the utmost care and attention to detail in order to create fully realized worlds for his characters to inhabit. Some have called it twee; others precious. To me, few working filmmakers have such distinct and fully realized voices, and throughout his now 16-year-long career he has grown and matured, finding the perfect balance between his almost surreal palate and the nuance and emotion behind his characters. In Moonrise Kingdom, a lovely and beautiful film shot on Super 16mm, Wes has crafted both his most technically proficient film and one of his most balanced and satisfying.
A common theme in the work of Wes Anderson is the paradigm that exists between the relative maturity of adults and children. Like Max Fischer in Rushmore or the Tenenbaum siblings in The Royal Tenenbaums, Sam and Suzy, the unusually complex young lovers of Moonrise Kingdom, are arguably more adult than the many adult inhabitants of New Penzance island. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are simply phenomenal as Sam and Suzy. Their work is natural and genuine, with the right amount of offbeat, idiosyncratic nuance that makes them fit perfectly into their adolescent roles. It is their combined passion and fearlessness that made my heart ache for the pair of lovers, and their relationship affected me in an emotionally resonant way that no Wes Anderson film previously had. Young love is often the most powerful, surprising, joyous, and pure, and in elongated scenes hiking through a forest or partying on a beach, Wes and his co-writer Roman Coppola have crafted moments of unbridled zeal.
If Sam and Suzy are hopelessly in love and committed to their singular goal of being with each other, then, the adults in their world lead far more melancholy and disappointing lives. It is posible that anyone on this island had what Sam and Suzy had when they were young, but thanks to the way life often doesn’t go as we expect, they are left fighting for their own fulfillment and happiness. Wes Anderson has the rare gift of being able to sell a a character’s entire personality and motivation with a visual cue as opposed to long sequences of dialogue and exposition, and that has perhaps never been as true. Although we spend limited time with the characters, the quartet of adults played by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand are fully realized antithesis to Sam and Suzy. Murray is no stranger to the films of Wes Anderson (in fact, he has appeared in each and every one except for the first), and as per usual he is clearly having the time of his life sinking his teeth into Walt Bishop, an unhappy lawyer with a wife (Frances McDormand, typically excellent) that is controlling and duplicitous. As the island’s sheriff, Bruce Willis gives perhaps the lightest and funniest performance of his career (this is no John McClane), and Edward Norton is lovely as the insecure scout leader that clearly serves as a surrogate for Wes Anderson. Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman and Tilda Swinton also make a strong impact in small roles.
In New Penzance, Anderson has created the zenith of the type of world his work favors. It is clear that in his efforts on the terrific animated feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes learned quite a bit, and the energy, pacing, and constantly escalating stakes of that film are mirrored here. Moonrise utilizes clever visual motifs (maps) to display the characters’ travels around the island and the surrounding lands, and Bob Balaban serves as a witty and omniscient narrator, talking directly to the camera, who relays the history of the island to the audience. Early on in the film we are told that a terrible storm is about to hit the island of New Penzance, and this serves for a visual metaphor that echoes the escalating pain of Sam and Suzy. Moonrise Kingdom is a film that uses visuals to tell its story, whether it be the incredible timing of reveals for absolutely hilarious jokes or moments of sheer surreal beauty. As the storm hits and each character is faced with their future and the decisions they must make, my breath was taken away by the subtle structure that lead to these moments. The final act of this film is a near-perfect symphony of character and action.
Not only is this the most emotionally rewarding of Wes’ features, it is also one of the absolute funniest. The humor in the film is visually enhanced and surprisingly dark, and although this is the first PG-13 film Wes has made (the rest were Rated R or, in the case of Fox, PG) it has a youthful, rebellious edge that mirrors the young lead characters. The costumes and production design are impeccable, as are the musical choices. The film uses the work of Benjamin Britten, especially the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (with inspiration from the play Noye’s Fludde that is set to his work) as an auditory motif, alongside tunes from Hank Williams and a suite by the always great Alexandre Desplat. Like the curator that he is, Wes has designed this film with an almost magical quality. The Super 16 cinematography by Robert Yeoman adds an authentic grain to the film that fits with the mid 1960s time period. The camera moves are smooth and flawless, notably an elongated piece in the film’s introduction that is mirrored in the finale. The fluidity of the camera and in turn Wes’ direction has never been more accomplished or energetic, and in many ways it reminds me of the work of the French New Wave. In fact, I’d imagine that Moonrise Kingdom will one day make a phenomenal double feature with Goddard’s superb Pierrot le Fou, and perhaps that I feel comfortable discussing it in the same sentence is the highest praise possible.