[25 May 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Please don’t let him fall off a cliff or drown in a lake or something.” Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is completing his Scout Master’s Log for the day, a day back in 1965. He’s worried about Sam (Jared Gilman), who has left camp, taking with him supplies, a tent, and a canoe. Smoking a cigarette as he writes inside his own tent, Scout Master Ward appears pensive, if not precisely self-reflective. He means to maintain the structures he knows.
Here Moonrise Kingdom cuts to Sam, steering his canoe. He wears a coonskin cap, glasses, and merit badges, his canoe is adorned with his troop’s flag, and he’s on his way to meet Suzy (Kara Hayward), a girl he spotted in a play a few months before. She was playing a raven. Since then, the 12-year-olds have been writing letters—his in sturdy juvenile print, hers on pink paper, with girly particulars—planning their mutual escape from their differently unhappy lives. He’s an “emotionally disturbed” orphan, bouncing from foster home to foster home; she’s the oldest child in a nuclear-seeming unit, recently alarmed to find her mother’s been reading Coping With the Very Troubled Child.
In their letters, the kids have devised to leave the New England island of New Penzance for another, smaller island, where, they imagine, their lives together will be improved. Their adventure has them traipsing along rough shorelines (“Watch out for turtles,” Sam counsels, “They’ll bite you if you put your finger in their mouth”), climbing up rocks, and carrying Suzy’s cat in a basket and yellow suitcase, in which she’s packed cat food cans, unreturned library books, and a battery-powered record player she’s borrowed from her brother.
It also has them discovering what it means to pronounce mutual affection, to discover and forgive each other’s foibles, and to reflect on their backgrounds, if only because they are pursued by same. For as the kids make their way forward, they are, of course, tracked by adults—including Scout Master Ward, Suzy’s parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), and Laura’s secret lover, the local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis)—as well as other kids serving as adults’ minions, namely, Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts.
When the Scouts come upon the runaways, they embark on an aggressive course of action, coming at them with rocks and hatchets and a homemade mace. Sam designs to protect his paramour, the scene cuts to a long shot of a generic mountainside as screaming commences. Soon enough, the Scouts come running toward the camera and away from Sam and especially Suzy, who has shot at them with her bow and arrow.
This bit of violence suggests what’s at stake for the opposite sides, for the fugitives and those who mean to bring them back. Even as Sam and Suzy will soon be recovered by the adults (Walt is particularly upset to find them in a tent in their underwear), their brief escape raises questions for everyone else, questions that remain, for the most part, unspoken. What are the benefits of conformity and commitment? Why do families matter? How does romance initiate family or family complicate romance? In posing these questions, Moonrise Kingdom is, in spurts, less precious than its antic storyline or Wes Anderson’s signature visual and verbal gimmickry.
Thus, the kids are prone to precocious wisdom: “Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know,” Sam observes, “They only have to be creative,” or again, when Suzy offers her romantic notion of the freedoms afforded an orphan, he admonishes, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And thus, the adults tend to wallow in ignorance: Walt knows Laura’s having an affair but does his best not to; Laura worries for Suzy (“Why is everything so hard for you?”), not quite recognizing herself in her daughter. That said, when she spots the fishhooks Sam has used to pierce Suzy’s ears, still in Suzy’s ears, Laura is suitably horrified, as well as predictably practical, as she ponders how hard it will be to remove them while the camera offers a pronounced close-up of Sam’s handiwork.
The difficulty of change—for good or ill—remains unresolved in Moonrise Kingdom. Sam and Suzy persist in their efforts to escape their confines, even as they may be heading into confines of another sort. “We can’t predict the exact future,” Sam advises. But we can guess where his movie is headed. On one hand, he and Suzy inspire Laura to reconsider her choices and Captain Sharp to see the problems of the legal-social system he’s bound to uphold (these problems are rather too plainly embodied by Tilda Swinton’s blue-uniformed character, named “Social Services”). On another hand, they inspire the Scouts to fight back with them, in an effort to reconfirm a familiar romance plot the boys have yet to experience. And on still another hand, Sam and Suzy are (like all of us, the film insinuates) caught up by a plot that has nothing to do with them, namely, an impending hurricane.
This crisis is yet another gimmick, of course, a means to get all the islanders together in a shelter (a church, replete with ritual and a pointy rooftop) so they can come to terms with their fear and pluck, or come to appreciate it in someone else, anyway. Hit by lightning, Sam is resurrected, charred and emboldened. The storm strikes, the kids rally, and the adults rebuild.