Monday, January 28, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

The other day a friend of mine and I were talking about the most recent work of Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. Unlike most people and critics, I really didn't like the movie that much. I thought it was good, and there were a lot of performances I liked, but I found it kind of boring. Since Kill Bill onward, Tarantino's movies have had one major theme running through them; the oppressed (women, Jews, African slaves) taking revenge on their oppressors (men, Nazis, southern plantation owners). There's nothing wrong with that theme, in fact it's one that can make a hell of an interesting movie. The problem is he attacks it from the same angle every time, with a bloody-as-hell, guns ablazing comeuppance at the end. The most interesting parts of his recent output for me was when he strayed away from that to try other stuff (Shoshanna's plot during Inglourious Basterds being the best example), but at the end, it goes back into the same stylized violence.

My friend pointed out, very smartly, that the same criticisms could be made about Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who's most recent movie, Moonrise Kingdom, was one of my favorite movies last year. That's somewhat true, in so far as that he has a very distinct style that he doesn't deviate too far from. The difference, however, is the material he tackles using said style. Unlike Tarantino (who, for the record, is responsible for some of my favorite movies), Anderson's movies continue to be similar stylistically but differ far more in their material then Quentin's. Tarantino is painting the same bowl of fruit in several different styles while Anderson is painting different objects the same way.

Anderson, as a filmmaker, is very much like a painter. Meticulous and detail oriented, he stages his movies in a way that goes against the typical realist style. His characters often look directly into the camera, as if they are speaking directly to the audience. He often employs a narrator, almost like a placard next to a work in a museum. He acknowledges the fourth wall, but doesn't necessarily break it. Sometimes this style doesn't work, and can make his stories seem cold and calculated. But at his best, like in The Royal Tenebaums, it can make the audience connect in an incredibly strong way. If I had to hold up a film that presents itself as the best example of Anderson's style and how it works, I think I'd choose Moonrise Kingdom.

Set on New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England, in the mid 1960s, the movie follows two children, orphan and proud Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and detached, troubled fantasy novel enthusiast Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). Together they run away into the wilderness of the island, leading Scout Master Ward (Edward Nortan), island police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Suzy's attorney parents (Frances McDormand and longtime Anderson collaborator Bill Murray) lead an expedition to find the missing children. The storm of the century is fast approaching the island though. Will they be able to find them before it hits? Yes.

If The Royal Tenebaums is Anderson's attempt at J.D. Salinger, Moonrise Kingdom is more like a Roald Dahl story, in my opinion much more so then Anderson's actual Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It's focused on the children and reads like a typical adventure, but underneath that surface is a much more adult world lurking. As I said, Anderson isn't very interested in presenting a "realistic" movie, and in some ways the movie feels like an escapist adventure. As anybody who read My Side of the Mountain as a kid knows, there is an allure to going out into the wilderness, roughing it on your own, with no adults telling you what to do. Parts of the movie certainly capture that aspect, where paradise is just a beach all to your own.

Indeed, this film captures both the good and the bad aspects of being that age. As usual for Anderson, the children protagonists don't really act the way any child would. They speak in a weirdly formal matter, almost detached from their surroundings. Yet through that detachment comes a weirdly personal connection. Their initial meeting, where Sam brazenly walks into the girl's dressing room and talks to Suzy, suggests an almost fated meeting. Their is an instant connection between the two, as if they both recognize they need the other as a confidant, somebody they can be so direct towards. They are broken, or at least feel that way, and through this method of communication they feel as if they are fixing each other. They immediately being sending letters to each other, making their respective counterpart almost like a diary. They can't confide to the adults in their lives because they can't trust them.

The adults are also broken, also because they feel as if they can't trust the other. I think that's the main thesis of the movie, with the children's initial absolute trust in the other branching out and extending to all the supporting cast. Edward Norton can't trust his troops, being introduced as an absolute authority. He marches through his camp like a dictator, micromanaging every aspect of the Khaki scouts. Bruce Willis can't trust anyone, not necessarily because he's unwilliing to, but because he simply doesn't have somebody he can rely on like that. He mentions that he once had a chance to get married but, for whatever reason, it fell apart. He's having an affair with Frances McDormand, but there's no indication that there is anything seriously there. That affair also illustrates the lack of trust between her and Bill Murray, who knows about the affair but lets it slide without questioning it, preferring to avoid an actual deeper understanding of his wife's needs. Not to mention Sam's foster parents, who dump him upon first mention of his escape.

All this mistrust among the adult's explain the children's need for it. They can't trust the authority figures in their lives because they don't extend any towards them. Sam's foster parents drop him as soon as he becomes an inconvenience, despite him thinking that he's finally starting to make a family with them. Suzy finds a pamphlet of her mother's about dealing with a troubled child, preferring to take the academic approach instead of just talking to her daughter about her troubles. That trust they lack in the real world they find in their own paradise, where they can talk about all their problems in a direct and honest fashion. When Sam gets an erection after hugging Suzy, there's no embarrassment, just an apology. He paints her in her underwear, again without embarrassment between the two. There's no need for shame when you can trust the other so deeply.

As the movie continues, this feeling spreads outwards. At the film's climax, as Sam and Suzy flee to the top of a church during a lightning storm, the adults are no longer acting as impediments to the children's cause. Instead they are actively helping them, as all parties do what they can to save Sam from going back to an orphanage. The kids didn't necessarily teach them to trust again, I wouldn't say the film is that sappy. But they do spring them to action by running away, forcing the adults to confront their own problems head on instead of idly standing by, hoping they will go away.

That's where the Roald Dahl comparison comes in, I think. Dahl's work often included kids far smarter then all of the adults in the stories, like Matilda, The Witches and The BFG. Moonrise Kingdom is a bit more subtle then that, as the adults clearly arn't idiots. But in their own ways, they are just as broken, if not more so, then the children. It's a fantastic film that shows Anderson's typically beautiful scene design with surprisingly sophisticated undertones. One of the best movies of 2012, which turned out to be a banner year for film. On the Wicker Scale, Christopher Lee is walking towards a bright primary colored wicker man, a children's choir being his backing track.

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