Sam Shakusky: Jared Gilman
Captain Sharp: Bruce Willis
Scout Master Ward: Edward Norton
Mr. Bishop: Bill Murray
Mrs. Bishop: Frances McDormand
Social Services: Tilda Swinton
Narrator: Bob Balaban
Cousin Ben: Jason Schwartzman
Commander Pierce: Harvey Keitel
Focus Features presents a film directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson and Roman Coppola. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking).
“Even smart kids stick their fingers in electrical sockets sometimes.”
—Captain Sharp, “Moonrise Kingdom”
A critic once said that the mark of a great director was the identifiably of his or her work with just a few frames worth of footage. Wes Anderson’s work is identifiable usually with just one still of footage. Even just 20 seconds or so could distinguish it for someone who isn’t even familiar with his work. Anderson is probably the most unique filmmaker working in movies today. His latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom”, is his most accomplished film to date.
Look at the opening credits of this picture. Anderson examines the entire Bishop household, an island lighthouse inhabited by a mother and father, a 15-year old daughter, and three younger boys. He films establishing shots with a signature set style that looks at the house as cross-section. We see the family inhabiting their world in their separate chambers, with little interaction. He also films the house in such a way that it looks like a dollhouse instead of a real one. The ceilings are a little too low. The forced perspective makes some objects look disproportionate to others. It all establishes that these characters live in a fabricated world.
It would be easy to look at Anderson’s body of work and declare that he’s just weird or quirky or some other backhanded compliment to pigeonhole his unique view of the world. I think there’s more to it than quirky characters behaving in oddball ways. His latest film in many ways is his strangest, yet it also feels like his most honest. It connects through its child leads to an innocence that has permeated all of Anderson’s work, an innocence that we all share at our core.
The action takes place in 1965 on a remote New England island that is only accessible by ferry or plane. A narrator informs us that this story begins three days before a devastating storm. It involves two kids, who are misfits in all the ways Anderson’s heroes usually are. They are highly intelligent. They pursue notions of life that they’ve seen but don’t yet understand. While their actions seem strange, they have an implacable logic to them.
Sam (Jared Gilman) is a “Khaki Scout,” who escapes his troop camp on the island one evening, leaving a note of “resignation” for his Scout Master. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is the daughter of two lawyers who live an isolated life in the lighthouse on the opposite side of the island from the Scout camp. The two had met the year prior during a local performance of “Noye’s Fludde”, an operatic telling of the story of Noah by composer Benjamin Britten. As always with Anderson’s films, music plays a very large role. Britten is used here with his version of Noah’s tale and with his more famous work “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” to exemplify the necessity of his characters to tear things down to their foundational elements before their lives can be built back up again.
Over the course of the year after their meeting, Sam and Suzy hatch a plan to run away. Once they do, it takes all the resources of the island’s few inhabitants to find them. Big name actors populate the ensemble cast. Bruce Willis is the local law enforcement representative, Captain Sharp. Edward Norton is Scout Master Ward. And, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy’s parents. None of these stars overplay their roles. They subtly add to Sam and Suzy’s story without distracting from it. Murray has a couple of particularly amusing moments that provide incredible detail to the story rather than playing simply for laughs.
Sam is an orphan. Suzy wishes she were. There is a funny exchange where Sam explains to Suzy that she has no idea what she is talking about with such a desire. During their time away, the two engage in more mature practices than their ages otherwise might. He smokes a pipe. She lounges in her underwear. They partake in their first kisses. She wonders if they should try it French style, where they touch tongues. All this could easily run into the realm of the uncomfortable and inappropriate, but Anderson and his co-screenwriter Roman Coppola have an incredible touch for keeping Sam’s and Suzy’s behavior squarely within the innocent age of experience both of these kids inhabit. These characters aren’t just small adults, nor do they venture into the dark depressing realms of adulthood as the children of Todd Solondz’s films do. They are merely trying to find that life they’ve been told to envy but don’t yet understand. They bring their own childhood understanding to it.
As I watched the movie, I wondered what Anderson’s point must be. This is not often the case with Anderson’s films for me. Usually his characters just inhabit their own unique world, but these two kids seem to be searching for something beyond that world. This connects these kids with the audience in a more fundamental way than I’ve ever seen from Anderson’s work before.