Film: Moonrise Kingdom
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson
Review: Peter Machen
I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson’s beautifully saturated oeuvre that I found myself in the unusual position of feeling a little disappointed with myself for not enjoying Moonrise Kingdom, his latest tour de force. And not just disappointed but slightly sad, as if discovering that an old and much-loved friend has changed in some small and fundamental way, and is not the person I thought they were.
More to the point, I found the movie unsatisfying and, as it moved through the course of its 94 minutes, I found myself feeling a little bored.
Given the almost universal acclaim that Anderson has received for Moonrise Kingdom, it is tempting to blame myself. But there is much in the film that doesn’t work to the same extent that Anderson’s previous films have done, and I can’t help thinking that the critical adoration of his latest outing is a touch Pavlovian – the film looks and feels much like his other works – except more so that it must surely be just as good as his previous outings
But Moonrise Kingdom is markedly different to Anderson’s previous work. One critic, who enjoyed the film, has suggested that Anderson has made a film that, for the first time, comes from the heart rather than from the head. This, for me, is one of the flaws in Moonrise Kingdom. It is the first of Anderson’s films whose charms are more heartfelt than cerebral. The director has always provided us with interiorities whose complexity is counterpointed by emotional stuntedness. As a result, I have always found his characters, highly stylised as they are, to be emotionally believable.
In Moonrise Kingdom, The characters feel like, well, characters, and despite the layer of sticky emotion that pervades the film, I felt emotionally distant from events.
Set in the mid-1960s, the film tells the story of a boy scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) and the pointedly contrary Suzy (Kara Hayward), who have met by chance and fallen in love. The two alienated adolescent eccentrics run away and attempt to survive, making substantial use of Sam’s woodmanship skills, eventually landing up on a small patch of coast, which becomes, in the hearts of the young lovers, the Moonrise Kingdom of the title. They are followed in their wake by an ensemble of incompetent adults, lead by Sam’s scout leader (gamely played by Edward Norton), and including Suzie’s oddball parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) as well as the local police chief (Bruce Willis).
Moonrise Kingdom is overscored, its relentless percussiveness allowing little space for the kind of contemplation that Anderson’s other films have evoked in me. Of course, music has always been intimately connected to his work, but here the soundtrack feels too forced, too relentless, too obvious, almost to prevent us noticing the linear and straightforward nature of the plot.
Which brings me to my central problem with the film. Anderson has carved out a niche for himself in which idiosyncrasy and individuality are elevated to high art. In Moonrise Kingdom, the characters are, for all their visual tics, far more one-dimensional than we’ve come to expect from the director while the storyline sticks to the narrative arc of conventionality in which conflict is followed by redemption. I felt like I was watching a standard Hollywood narrative that has been dipped in Anderson’s magic. But the magic is all on the surface. It does not penetrate emotionally in the same way that A Life Aquatic or The Royal Tenenbaums did with such effectiveness and broken grace.
There is another big problem with the film, although it is the kind of problem that lesser film-makers might take as a compliment. Moonrise Kingdom is too visually rich relative to the rest of its content. Virtually every frame – except perhaps some of the scenes in which Sam and Suzie traverse the gentle wilderness – feels like a gorgeous, perfectly composed postcard taken straight from the period. But his high-flying formalism is so intense that I found myself looking at the film more than I was watching it. Moonrise Kingdom gives highly formalistic directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Greenaway a run for their money, but the visuals are so strong that, in the absence of a similarly robust script and storyline, they dominate the senses at the expense of Anderson’s usually layered intellect.
Moonrise Kingdom is an homage to cinema, memory and a nostalgically rendered simpler time, a time in which the guarded complexity of Anderson’s other films might not have enjoyed the traction that they have achieved with such joyous determination. And so I feel churlish and more than a little rude for not enjoying a film that is made with such evident love. This position is magnified by the fact that most weeks I find myself watching films that are commercial products way before they constitute any kind of artistic expression.
As such, there is a strong part of me that almost feels like abandoning my own critical perspective and lavishing Anderson in restrained praise. But that would be a cop out, and I can’t help but suspect that the director is attempting to move in the direction of a commercial product. That is unlikely to happen – Anderson’s approach is too knowing, too ornamented, too layered, and global audiences are too used to films that lead them by the nose far more unashamedly than Anderson is capable of doing.
As such, the film finds itself caught in an uncomfortable space that will almost certainly satisfy many of Anderson’s viewers but will leave his more discerning fans wanting for more.