Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson‘s most mannered and intricately manicured film to date; an impressive feat in the shadow of 2009’s painstakingly animated stop-motion feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s easy to fixate on the delicate art decoration and cutesy costume design and Robert Yeoman’s precise cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s delightful score – and also necessary, because these elements are fabulous – but it would be unfair to suggest Moonrise Kingdom is only those things. It’s so much more. The picture is easily Anderson’s finest and funniest love story; imbued with real pathos and littered with wonderful ancillary characters. Young leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give two of the best turns of the year, and rival the subjects of Michael Haneke‘s Amour for the title of 2012’s Most Overwhelming Romantic. Fear not, those who winced at that comparison: this one has a far happier ending.
Twelve-year old orphan and social pariah Sam Shakusky (Gilman) flees his Boy Scout troop and embarks on a great voyage with depressed, violent outcast Suzy Bishop (Hayward) on their island home of New Penzance. The year is 1965, says our cartographic narrator (Bob Balaban), and a storm of biblical proportions is a ‘coming. It is with great urgency, then, that Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and Suzy’s lawyer parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), call upon the island’s only police officer, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), to save the kids. The kids, however, are doing just fine. Sam’s rather adept at foraging and making a home in the wilderness. Suzy is happy to be freed of her parents, who struggle to understand their daughter’s issues and instead bicker in separate beds. They share their first kiss on the coast, after dancing elatedly to Suzy’s record player in their unmentionables. First go their clothes, then follows their innocence.
It’s not just that Sam and Suzy have a shared disdain for their elders; they seem to understand and care deeply for one another. She doesn’t mind that he wets the bed, and he is impressed rather than terrified by her rage-streak (a showdown with some renegade scouts proves her to be a ferocious warrior). When they decide to make it official and wed, it’s not an outrageous decision, especially when compared with the actions of the hangdog adults that populate their world. Laura Bishop is sleeping with Captain Sharp; lonely Scout Master Ward considers the allegiance of his underlings to be more valuable than even his real job; the comically single-minded Social Services (Tilda Swinton) wants to lock Sam away at a juvenile refuge; Walt Bishop hides from his wife, and angrily chops down trees, shirtless, with a bottle of wine in hand.
Laura rationalises her loveless pact with Walt by telling him that they’re all the children have. “It’s not enough,” he replies. Despite it being a selfish response, he’s right. They refer to each other as ‘Counsellor,’ and connect solely on the basis of their shared knowledge of the law. No favours are being done for the offspring at the Bishop household. Suzy certainly didn’t learn love from her parents; she learns it at the little beach-side retreat her and Sam christen ‘Moonrise Kingdom.’ This is a movie not just about first love, but lasting love. Sam and Suzy aren’t made for each other, but they found each other, and they’re there for each other, and that’s so much more important. I’m not sure that’s necessarily what Moonrise Kingdom is about; it’s merely the aspect that made the most profound impact. It’s also a reminder that Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with regular collaborator Roman Coppola, is not just piling on quirks for quirk’s sake. There is a heart beneath the immaculately tailored threads.
Willis, Norton, McDormand, and Murray are each excellent as comically despondent sad sacks, and hilarious performers Swinton, Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, and Harvey Keitel support them in small but significant roles. This is really the deadpan Gilman and tender Hayward’s showcase, though, just as it’s Sam and Suzy’s universe, and everyone else is just living in it. Moonrise Kingdom’s look and feel inspires the same effect; as if it were crafted in the imagination of two kids who dream of grand adventures and wild floods and roving bands of adversaries and fire-cracker explosions and matching outfits and water-colour landscapes. The soundtrack, comprised of curious, seemingly castrato choral arrangements and a ‘How To’ guide for the orchestra, further takes us back to our youth. Shallow affectations are never this specific and considered.
The number of detractors who despise Anderson’s peculiarities is matched only by the YouTube parodies that mock his particular set of skills. Moonrise Kingdom is the sign of an artist moving forward undeterred, and the resulting product is one of the best pieces he’s yet produced. Why should he have to apologise for marrying lasting, indelible imagery with unique aural delights if they should contain a compelling story and true characters? Around the time of his disappointing and detached The Life Aquatic, I wondered if Wes could still tell real stories. He can. His way. That is all we can ever ask of a filmmaker.
Moonrise Kingdom arrives in Australian cinemas August 30, 2012.