“What kind of bird are you?”asks Sam Shikusky, (Jared Gilman) the shy, disliked Khaki Scout of Troop 55 on New Penzance Island, presumably somewhere along the coast of New England. He has gone wandering during the performance at St. Jack’s church of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, a tale of Noah’s flood. He finds himself in the girls’ dressing room, and a line of girls dressed in avian costumes face the mirror. He has no interest in the owl or the sparrow, but is all eyes for the raven.
She is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), and anyone who knows Genesis knows that the raven was the unfortunate bird that was first released by Noah from the ark, but never came back. As Suzy tells Sam that she is a raven, their eyes lock and it is love at first sight. They will write for a year, until the next summer, when she and Sam will run off together.
I don’t think any film director has as instantly recognizable style as Wes Anderson, as he directs Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola. To be sure, this film is full of a myriad novelistic details that Anderson is known for, particular those of the kind that are often labeled “precious.” For instance, each member of the Khaki Scouts has a badge over his heart indicating his role in the troop–one is “Reptile Control,” another “Petty Bugler.” Another boy has a patch over his eye and is only known as “Lazy Eye” (funny, if insensitive). A major decision is made while a boy trampolines in the background. Not just scissors are utilized as a weapon, but lefty scissors, with the identifiable red handle. Sam puffs a corncob pipe, and Suzy wears blue eye shadow.
All of this makes for a very funny movie, but there is also an overall sense of loss. The use of music, also an Anderson specialty, is key. Instead of using a variety of pop songs, as he did in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he sticks to two themes–Britten (especially a recording he did for young people) and Hank Williams. I was also reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, what with its “kingdom by the sea.”
It is 1965. Sam, with his ever present coonskin cap, busts loose from the troop, which is overseen by the diligent Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton). The island police is notified, which means Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy, with her binoculars, her brother’s record player, a cat, and a suitcase full of books about girl adventurers, slips out of her house, called Summer’s End. Her parents are the somewhat distracted Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who is seeing Willis on the sly. Suzy found a book called “Coping With Your Troubled Child” on top of the refrigerator. Her brother calls her a traitor to the family, and she responds, “I hope I am.” Soon a full scale search is launched, with the Khaki Scouts using their tracking skills.
Sam and Suzy find an idyll and frolic together, chastely, but there is a few moments where those who might recoil at watching 12-year-olds French kiss in their underwear will feel uncomfortable (Sam even gets to second base). But of course their idyll must end, and Sam, an orphan, has been banished from his foster home and will be turned over to Special Services, represented by Tilda Swinton, dressed head to toe in cerulean.
The film is about innocent love, the kind that only children can feel for each other, but it is also about loss. Most of the characters in this film are lonely–Murray and McDormand sleep in separate beds, Norton has a photo up of his mentor, the great Khaki Scout Master (played in a very funny cameo by Harvey Keitel), but apparently no woman in his life, and Willis lives alone in a trailer. There is something of Romeo and Juliet to the children’s love–it is not exactly doomed, but it will bring people together in common cause.
As with Anderson’s other films, the acting is of a certain style–mostly a kind of flat, declarative kind. No one raises their voice (although Murray, seeing his daughter with Sam lying together in a tent, does charge like a rhino). Statements are made with a philosophical certainty, and children are wise beyond their years. While mourning a dead dog, Suzy asks Sam if he was a good dog. “Who’s to say?” he asks. When asked what his real job is, Norton says he is a math teacher, and then corrects that, to say he is a scoutmaster first and a math teacher on the side. Murray finds some paintings Sam sent Suzy. McDormand tells him that “he does mostly watercolors, some nudes.”
The film includes some nods to other films, ranging from Titanic to Buster Keaton’s Cops. There is a kind of hyper-realism present, so that when a character, during a thunderstorm, runs across a place called Lightning Field, we can be pretty sure what happens (right after that character quotes Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce).
Despite those quotes, Anderson remains an amazingly original director. Even though his style is immediately recognizable, he is not stealing from himself. Certainly Sam and Suzy are kindred spirits with Max Fleischman of Rushmore, or the Whitman brothers of The Darjeeling Limited. Royal Tenenbaum would love a son like Sam. They all march to the beat of their own drummers.
My grade for Moonrise Kingdom: A.