Ruling his ‘Kingdom’

Wes Anderson’s latest hits the dark mark with quirky style
by Willie Krischke

Watching a Wes Anderson film (and especially “Moonrise Kingdom”) is a lot like descending into the basement of a model train enthusiast who has devoted years to developing an entire world, lovingly detailed and remarkably complex. If you’ll let him, your host can tell you stories about each of the people in his little town. It’s an odd, slightly creepy experience, but if you’ll give in to it without judgment, it’s also quite absorbing, even enchanting.
Moonrise Kingdom
Plot summaries never do movies like “Moonrise Kingdom” justice. You could make an entirely different movie from the same script. It’s the story of two outcasts and of first love, set on a New England (or possibly Canadian?) island with no roads, only well-traveled footpaths, reachable only by ferry and the daily delivery of mail via biplane. The year is 1965, and Hank Williams is on the radio. Bearded, bespectacled Bob Balaban introduces us to the island and its inhabitants, in bits that feel exactly like a man making his own documentary about the town he loves and knows better than anyone else. He very well could be the model train enthusiast showing us around his created world, which means he’s also the perfect stand-in for Wes Anderson.

Newcomer Jared Gilman absolutely kills it as a precocious 12-year-old whose skills as an outdoorsman far outstrip his social graces. I was amazed at Gilman’s ability to deliver a deadpan line. He captures Anderson’s sense of humor and timing far better than the more experienced actors in the film, many of whom have worked with the director and all of whom deliver solid performances. But Gilman outshines them all.

I’d say he’s a rising star, but I’m afraid success in a stylized, mannered film like “Moonrise Kingdom” may not translate to Hollywood success. Wes Anderson ought to keep him on the roster, though. The kid is dynamite.

Gilman becomes pen pals with the slightly older Kara Hayward, a troubled child in an unhappy family on the other side of the island. She’s a younger version of Gwenyth Paltrow in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” all glowers, dark eye shadow and knee socks. Her parents, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, also seemed to have stepped out of that earlier film. They don’t get much time to develop a convincing relationship; we’re just supposed to see that they’re probably too smart and educated for their own good. Their marriage is on the rocks, and it’s the children who suffer.

When Gilman and Hayward decide to run away together, it sets the whole community buzzing and gives the film a sense of motion and purpose. Hayward steals her little brother’s record player and brings it along, as well as a hard-sided orange suitcase full of stolen library books. And a pair of binoculars that give her superpowers. Gilman’s camping skills keep them alive and on the run (though they never seem in much danger). He catches and cooks fish for her; she reads him to sleep and then dumps the ashes from his corncob pipe into the campfire before cuddling up next to him.

Edward Norton does great work as the super sincere and devoted leader of a group of Khaki Scouts, teaching them camping skills in the age before Gore-Tex and global positioning systems. He seems to approach his job as scoutmaster much like a missionary approaches his mission. When one camper asks him what his real job is, he says, “I’m a math teacher. No, scratch that. I’m a scoutmaster. I teach math on the side.” He can hardly believe that one of his campers has escaped – the news comes as a blow to his own sense of self-worth. He mobilizes the scout troop to find the boy but must caution them not to be violent in doing so. Turns out Gilman wasn’t too popular with the other scouts.  

The local police chief (Bruce Willis), a sad man who is sleeping with McDormand, gets involved in the search-and-rescue operation. When Gilman’s foster parents find out he’s run away from camp, they call Willis to let him know that the child is “not invited” to come back home. When the two kids are “rescued,” Willis lets him stay with him in his trailer, and the two have a poignant heart-to-heart about love, loss and failure while Hank Williams’ “Rambling Man” plays in the background. But then Gilman escapes in the night and the chase is on again. Social Services (Tilda Swinton) gets involved, and the whole thing climaxes on the night of the worst storm to ever hit the island.
Wes Anderson has quite a few devoted fans and probably just as many haters. If you already have an opinion, “Moonrise Kingdom” is unlikely to change it. (If you don’t, you’re either in for a treat or a truly disorienting experience. On leaving the theater, I overheard a middle-aged man say to his wife, “Where did you hear about THIS one?”) But when he’s successful, what sets Wes Anderson apart from all of his imitators is his strange ability to give these characters, who seem terribly precious and adorable and not the least bit grounded in reality, true emotional resonance. I haven’t found this to be true of all of his films: quite a few just leave me cold. But “Moonrise Kingdom” is among his best, right there with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The love scenes between the two barely-teens are both awkward, endearing and nostalgic. The whole thing takes on a heartbreaking poignancy as the young, naive lovers are contrasted against the sad adults who seem determined to put an end to their romantic adventure. Their relationship feels real, and you root for them, even as they are “married” by a corrupt scoutmaster. The police chief really is sad, and you feel for him.  It’s an intangible feeling. Anderson’s signature style means he walks a tight wire with all his films. Sometimes he falls. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” he’s doing backflips with a deft sense of grace and balance