Update 2019: Another viewing, and I’m still convinced that the central enigma of Anderson’s style is that it still feels as much like a reckoning as a refuge: for everything he asks of us, there’s as clear a sense that he is hiding more from us, and from himself. His brutally mannered style often feels like overprotective personal authoritarianism, the kind of excessive formalism of a director composing his characters’ worlds with an absolutist sense of extreme mastery. To that extent, this film’s style is actually more authoritarian than ever, the cleanliness of Anderson’s lines (both geometric and linguistic) all the more shielding and unyielding, all the more unforgivingly sculpted down to the most atomistic level. And, as with all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom not only externalizes its characters expressionistically but defines those characters by their willfully expressionistic selves: at first blush, they simply refuse to not choreograph their very souls for us, to adorn their walls with markers of their core being, using style as a shorthand for self rather than asking us to figure out anything about them.
Moonrise Kingdom makes this manifest in the narrative as well: more than ever, his youthful protagonists’ childlike replication of emotional maturity and sensible domestication have the automatic quality of predetermined conclusions, children unthinkingly performing what they’ve been programmed to by adults. If Moonrise Kingdom is autobiographical, not necessarily at the level of narrative event mimicking his personal life but at the level of formal embellishment exposing his soul, then this becomes the first film where Anderson’s style finally peers back into itself to explore its own self-construction, and, more importantly, the nervousness underlying that construction. Perhaps because it meditates on the character Anderson might be or might become, it does feel as though Anderson’s aesthetics have stopped excessively signposting his characters and begun to tease out what they themselves don’t (or can’t) signpost for us. The effect of this is arguably to turn Anderson’s toyboxes into tragedies.
Rather than reassuring our own desires to manicure our personal images and govern our own personal spaces, his film (and his follow-up, The Grand Budapest Hotel) finally seems to actually delve into the chaos of the mind beneath the flattened diorama exteriors and precious costume shelters. The latter no longer seem representative of his characters’ souls but, rather, indicative of their anxieties, no longer expressing who they “are” so much as what they either refuse to admit or don’t realize they can’t admit. Their symmetrical equipoise (as domineering as ever in Anderson’s cinema) seems less the tyrannical domain of a dictator-director and more an admission of guilt on Anderson’s part, an acknowledgment of a cloistered soul whose personal directorial style has sometimes existed to protect him (and us) from recognizing our collective arrested development, from admitting to that which we can’t control, style, and comport with.
Moonrise Kingdom thematizes this tragic sense of self more eloquently than any previous Anderson film, evoking a greater sense of melancholic loss, of personal absence, his characters’ wounds starting to open for us to see. I, for one, still can’t tell that it doesn’t just amount to an overgrown child tidying up his soul with compositional tableau and cleansing his mind with figurines corralled, guarded, and stabilized rather than excavating his inner-self and exposing his raw nerves for us. In other words, Moonrise Kingdom tunnels so far down into Anderson’s personal underground warren that one can’t tell whether he is exposing new light or just hiding from it. But it certainly doesn’t feel like personal exhaustion, which is where I thought Anderson was heading circa 2010, and that alone suggests a director who still has crevices worth exploring.
And the story of Wes Anderson not so much reinventing or adding to his aesthetic but reigning it in continues. When we last left him, he’d staved off a career of middling recreations of his first few films by turning to animation. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s return to live-action filmmaking, he seems to have learned a fair bit from his previous effort about loosening up and introducing a little fluidity and naturalism into his rigid formalism. The whole film is consummately Anderson-like – it would be a pale-faced lie to introduce this film as Anderson changing it up. But there’s a less suffocating air to the whole thing, more room for Anderson’s precision to breathe and infuse the wide open spaces of the New England vacation-land the film calls home. If Fantastic Mr. Fox was Anderson unhinged, this is him sitting back and relaxing, more comfortable than he’s ever been with himself and letting the wind take him any which way.
The “which way” involves pre-teens Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) who live on an island off the coast of New England, although they actually live in a vaguely fantastical adult’s mental vision of childhood vacations in the wilderness. But we expect these things when Wes Anderson is about. When the film insists the two youth must be suffocated by the norms of society and childhood (insisting in the form of a rather lovingly detached and uninterested narrator that more than anything captures the fable-like quality of the film), they run away and go off to live in the wilderness for themselves. Adults, as they are wont to do, work tirelessly to find them.
The most apparent thing about Moonrise Kingdom is that it follows-through on Fantastic Mr. Fox’s largely natural exteriors and populated forestry. For Anderson, this is no small thing – his films have always been about harsh angles and upright lines sanded-down with simple, broad colors, all of which work better in the artificial world of mankind. Moonrise Kingdom has all of this, but as in Fantastic Mr. Fox, it reserves such formalism for interiors and contrasts them with wider, more expansive, and above all more unruly exteriors. Anderson seems to realize he can’t contain the ever-present thought of the wide, natural wilderness that exists around his openly artificial formalism, and he basks in it, allowing it to disrupt his framing and throw a little quiet chaos in. That he allows this indicates, more than anything, Anderson’s new-found maturity and a realization of his own limits. If he’s getting tired with being relentlessly formalist, then kudos to his tireless work years before for getting him to the point where he would be too worn out to continue it.
The expansive nature of the film indicates a little more though. If Fantastic Mr. Fox found Anderson grappling with the middle-aged torture of choosing something professional and respected or simply letting loose with childlike energy, Moonrise Kingdom sees him even more curious. With its pre-teen heroes playing out the act of falling in love, Sam Shakusky acting like an adult male pipe-in-tow, the film displays all the forced artifice of a child who doesn’t know what adulthood is but wants to feign it anyway. Of course, since his “adultness” also entails the sort of icy lack of emotion that the film’s actual adults display as well, maybe he knows it more well than we initially suspect. For Anderson to give us a film directly about aging, and to paint his adults in such a stodgy light, can’t but indicate some sort of self-reflection on his own adult-ness. More than anything, it may reveal a man who tried to be a child for so long that he forced it to the point of losing his sense of the unforced charisma and wonder childhood actually entails. When the adults in the film try to connect to Sam, only to realize they know not what they’re doing…well, Anderson’s arch-formalism has always been about what was personal to him, and I see no reason to deny the connection now that his sensibilities are more adult. He’s merely realizing that what used to be personal to him may have been his own personal lie.
For those who fear the film being a meta-textual self-criticism, there’s little need to worry. For the rough-around-the-edges openness of the film, it’s still recognizably Anderson. Expect gorgeous cinematography, interplay between static frames and slow-tracking shots, characters placed right smack dab in the center of the frame. It’s all there, but it’s ever-so-slightly freer and more natural here, given a time to develop and simply exist that has been long absent in Anderson’s always-cramped framing. It’s a slight shift, not a radical challenge.
Speaking of which, in Anderson’s next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the main character M Gustave is unmistakably Anderson and unmistakably presented as a false lie of a person holding himself up by his put-upon airs of formal fashion and a thick coating of precise grooming. It is at once Anderson’s most quintessentially Anderson-like and precise film and his most openly self-conscious about the limits of his own body of work. It’s nothing less than a commentary on how false and lacking in emotion everything he’d produced up to that point truly was. Ironically, Moonrise Kingdom, made right before it, is actually his most emotional film, a work of true warmth and subtle character that plays like a vacation. Whether or not the tension between the two films means his Moonrise Kingdom is a lie or Grand Budapest Hotel is, I cannot say. But it most certainly means that Anderson is a much more complicated human being than we give him credit for, and that he has more than a few ideas left under his sleeve.