In a memorable scene from the 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited, Angelica Houston’s character, Patricia, suggests to her estranged sons that “Maybe we could express ourselves more fully if we say it without words,” a line that neatly summarizes Wes Anderson’s success as a filmmaker.
The sparse dialogue in Anderson’s films captures detachment and suppression – a part of all human relationships. Yet, his films also portray misfortunes and difficulties we encounter with those closest to us in a warm-hearted, positive light. His films manage to capture the joys of relationships, despite their challenging complexities. Anderson’s success rides largely on his unique depiction of these two conflicting sides of human behavior -- our social tendencies and our hermetic ones. Though his films balance the line between comedy and tragedy, his work has an overall positive message about human nature.
Anderson’s style is well-defined at this point. The cinematography, which includes plenty of slow-motion shots and still frames, furthers his peculiar spin on the way his characters interact with one another. Those who have grown fond of his distinct style will be satisfied with Anderson’s latest release, Moonrise Kingdom.
Critics often point to his reoccurring emphasis on idiosyncrasies as style over substance, calling it pretentious and glib. However, they fail to recognize that this is a deliberate inversion; of course Anderson has specific intentions with his films -- the non sequiturs in the dialogue are not just ironic and purposeless. They disguise the genuine, moral themes within the plot, and by doing so, enhance them. Whereas people in real life often make comments laced with irony, sarcasm, or cynicism intending to unmask conventionality and traditionalism, Anderson’s characters say these things earnestly. In Anderson’s universe, the irony is inverted. Within a traditional narrative form, it becomes morally instructive, dealing with themes about self-identity, love, family, and friendship.
Moonrise Kingdom is a classic coming-of-age tale. It follows two young, disillusioned outsiders, Sam and Suzy. They both seek self-knowledge and a better grasp on their identities. Sam is a dissident in the tradition of Yossarian (from Joseph Heller’s classic, Catch-22). He runs away from the campground of the Khaki Scouts -- a boy scout troupe run efficiently by the stern but sensitive Scout Master Ward (played by Ed Norton). Besides the similarities between Sam and Yossarian as intelligent outsiders, the film does not delve into heavy satire of the Scouts, which does in fact resemble the paradox-ridden, military unit in Catch-22.
Anderson isn’t interested in the darker side brought about by existential isolation in the postwar Western world. Rather, his focus is on a general disillusionment from those closest to us in our lives: family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and the various people we encounter and interact with. Just like in his previous works, the filmmaker reminds us that these relationships are the foundation for curing the suffering caused by isolation.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam has recently been disowned by his foster parents and is frequently cited as the least popular boy in his troupe. Suzy’s alienation stems from anger and disillusionment towards her parents that manifests itself in sporadic acts of violence. In Anderson’s sleek style, the characters are likable and presented as more intelligent and creative than those around them. In response to a question from Sam about what she wants to do when she grows up, Suzy says that all she wants is to have adventures, and Sam concurs.
Like a good percentage of Anderson’s fan base -- well-educated, upwardly mobile young people hoping to find fulfillment in their lives and to move beyond the conformity in a Western world that paradoxically seems to champion the idea of “the individual” -- Sam and Suzy suffer for being free-spirited and free-thinking. Through love, Suzy and Sam are comforted from the pains that stem from the process of forming their identities.
David Foster Wallace’s fiction often dealt with overcoming the traps of postmodern art and finding meaning beyond irony. In his well-known essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. fiction,” he explains the difficulty in balancing intelligent, hip, jaded self-awareness and actually having something meaningful to say. To some, Anderson’s films may not escape the crippling chains of irony, but for younger generations that have consumed obscene amounts of cynicism through media, his films offer sincere, universal messages about the importance of establishing authentic relationships.
In his most recent collection of essays titled, Farther Away, at the conclusion of an essay about his journey to an island in Chile in the wake of his friend Wallace’s death, Jonathan Franzen laments about how “sick and crazy radical individualism really is.” This message about the importance of being able to experience authentic love, as opposed to an obsequious self-love, is increasingly relevant in a world becoming more flooded with impersonal technologies and media. Art that reminds of this, that provides us with self-aware but genuine humor, will therefore resonate.
Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom fulfills this difficult standard, solidifying it as a memorable and worthwhile experience. At first glance, the film may appear to be more light-hearted and unassuming than some of Anderson’s past existential explorations on screen. Despite the plot’s adolescent characters and PG-13 rating, Moonrise Kingdom shows signs of being his most mature film to date.
John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.