Moonrise Kingdom

"Was he a good dog?" "Who's to say?"

In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson takes his trademark aesthetic to its logical conclusion, and delivers the biggest triumph of his career.  No longer are his meticulous compositions and whimsical flourishes mere affectations intruding on a story he doesn’t quite know how to tell. Nothing intrudes on Moonrise Kingdom, because the movie is a monolith: a unitary, unmistakably Andersonian vision; a world where the filmmaker’s quirky predilections finally – finally – make perfect sense.

Equally important, Moonrise Kingdom has none of the smugness that, in my view, marred Anderson’s often-beloved previous efforts. Even Fantastic Mr. Fox, the stop-motion feature that many very smart people consider hilarious and moving, seemed to me to be insufferably pleased with itself – with its own perceived cleverness and oddball characterizations, with the very notion of being a Wes Anderson cartoon – despite being only kind of funny. There’s none of that here; not anymore. In its own melancholy, wistful way, Moonrise Kingdom is as silly and strange as anything Anderson has ever done, but it has a sincerity and emotional richness that I’ve never seen from him. It’s the first of his films that truly has a soul.

The story takes place on an island off the coast of New England, where a troublesome twelve year-old boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) has escaped from a Khaki Scout encampment led by an earnest, touchingly committed scout leader played by Edward Norton. (The Khaki Scouts are like our Boy Scouts, but eponymously attired and with a vaguely military discipline; there is a wonderful montage wherein Norton, puffing on a cigarette, undertakes a morning inspection of the campground, including their efficient, Rube Goldberg-esque latrine system.) Sam, it turns out, took off to meet Suzy (Kara Hayward), the daughter of two jaded lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who live in exquisite boredom on the other side of the island. The two met at a local church pageant performance of Noah’s Ark, where Suzy was set to play a sleek and fearsome raven (?).  Sam barged into the girls’ dressing room, dismissing with impeccable disdain her friends’ protestations that he isn’t supposed to be there (“I’ll be leaving soon”), and kicking off a letter-writing campaign that led to the escape plot.

Sam and Suzy’s disappearance triggers an island-wide manhunt, led by the island’s resident sheriff (Bruce Willis) on one hand, and a deputized band of Khaki scouts on the other. Meanwhile, the young lovers make camp by the sea and contemplate a future together.

It’s all impossibly droll. Anderson’s style is as immaculate as ever, all symmetry and right angles, every shot a model of painterly precision. (The brilliant opening sequence, a tour of Suzy’s house, is a hilarious tour de force of visual structure, symbolizing what she sees as the stifling repetitiveness of her home life.) One difference is that his framing here is unusually tight, sending our eyes darting to explore the frame; despite being filmed in stodgy old 2D, the film’s compositions are also beautifully three-dimensional. Anderson’s typical stylistic tics are present and accounted for, in other words, but refined and amplified; the film is gorgeous, something to behold.

But there’s so just much more feeling this time around. At last, Anderson seems less interested in impressing us with his wit than in expressing something. Sam and Suzy have a scene on the beach, in which some frantic dancing turns into an embrace, that I can imagine despising as the worst of Anderson’s precious and quirky aesthetic, but there’s so much tenderness and unvarnished optimism running through its veins that I felt my eyes well up instead. The same goes for a particular moment at the end of the film, a fleeting expression of love and connection and enthusiasm about the future that’s so perfect I wanted to distill and bottle it. The movie is ultimately a meditation on the way youthful vigor turns into dashed hopes and jaded routine, and it’s lovely and potent and real – despite maybe the most unreal thing Anderson’s ever made.

There’s a lot of delightful stuff around the margins – from Tilda Swinton as Child Protective Services (literally) to Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel in funny near-cameos. If I have a nitpick, it’s that the film is maybe kind of overstuffed, to the point where some of the painstaking setpieces (e.g., a long sequence at the Khaki Scout headquarters) don’t really stick. But these are small things. Moonrise Kingdom made a believer out of a long-time naysayer, and that’s really something.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Street of Chance

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