Take the Carbon, Leave the Bible: Some Thoughts on Moonrise Kingdom

There’s a great moment in the fake Italian talk show interview with Wes Anderson and […]

David Zahl / 7.17.12

There’s a great moment in the fake Italian talk show interview with Wes Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach that’s included on the Criterion edition of The Life Aquatic. Following a series of hilariously awkward and absurd exchanges, the (ridiculous) host asks the director point-blank if he believes in God. Wes answers, “Eh, I think so. Yeah. I mean, roughly.” You could easily dismiss his answer as part of the schtick, and maybe it was, who knows. But after watching Moonrise Kingdom twice, I’m not so sure Wes wasn’t being honest.

For those unfortunate few who haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading this and go buy a ticket. If you must continue, know that Moonrise Kingdom depicts the life of a fictional New England island named New Penzance during the summer of 1965, in the days leading up to “the region’s worst meteorological disaster in the second half of the 20th century.” And as with all Anderson films, it’s filled to the brim with whimsical detail, understated running jokes, memorable characters, and gorgeous set pieces. Thematically, the Anderson hallmarks are also on full display: precocious children, sad adults, joyful mischief, and of course, the imperative for some cataclysmic event to interrupt all the charming minutiae and navel-gazing of life (Tenenbaums = Suicide, Life Aquatic = Pirate Attack, Darjeeling = Drowning, Fox = Uprooting). One friend, upon seeing the trailer, remarked that some of the elements seemed so pronounced that the filmmaker must be consciously lampooning himself. Fortunately, the full-length version gives a different impression. Moonrise may not usurp Tenenbaums as the most beloved of his films, or Rushmore as the giddiest, Zissou as the most idiosyncratic, Darjeeling as the most profound, or Fox as the wackiest and most creative, but it nonetheless represents the zenith of Wes’ peculiar vision. In fact, it may be his most beautiful and generous expression of it yet.

Oddly enough, Moonrise Kingdom has also been the film to quiet, at least temporarily, the backlash that has dogged Wes since Rushmore (don’t forget: the initial response to Tenenbaums was not nearly as warm as people would like to think). I’ve always felt that the strong reaction that has come from certain quarters is a mixture of old-fashioned jealousy and what the diplomat at the end of Whit Stillman’s film Barcelona describes so perfectly in regard to the United States:

“The US is like an ant farm for the rest of the world. But, people living in other countries can’t observe the ants. They must rely on journalists and commentators for a description. The problem is, that these people seem to hate ants.”

What can I say – I love ants. Or stop-motion sugar crabs, as the case may be. Wes has recently remarked that instead of intentionally imposing a contrived and increasingly precious stylistic lexicon (as some have accused him of doing), he’s simply working within his limitations, trying to make the films as good as he can. While the sentiment may be a tad aw-shucksy, the truth is, we would have a lot harder time with him if he was trying to be someone he’s not.


The heart of Moonrise Kingdom is the romance between twelve year old Sam Shakusy and Suzy Bishop. Both are outcasts of some stripe, orphan Sam being the round peg in the square-holed Khaki Scouts, and Suzy the temperamental and introverted girl in a family of mild-mannered boys and attorney parents. Needless to say, their relationship–which, despite one brief moment on the beach that feels self-consciously and excessively “French” (the only minor misstep of the film, in my opinion), is innocent and sweet in a puppy love kind of way (though even if it weren’t, how touching is it that they feel compelled to get married?!)–meets with some serious resistance from the adults on the island. It’s a perfect recipe, in other words, for a good ol’ parable of Law and Grace, which Anderson delivers with both aplomb and heart. I’m thankfully not the only one who thought so. Richard Brody spelled things out beautifully in his blogpost for The New Yorker:

There’s always an element of catastrophe in Anderson’s films, yet here it’s set in expressly mythopoetic, religious terms, with the local historian and narrator (Bob Balaban) foretelling, as if prophetically, apocalyptic doings. It’s impossible to talk much more about these doings, but the mention of Noah should suffice. The young lovers, with their innocent, daring, intensely sincere, and consecrated love (and the ultimate proof of that consecration, as one spiritually awakened young character says, is their willingness to die for each other), have provoked a scandal. They are assumed by the authorities—parents, scoutmasters, scouts, and even the state, as embodied in the figure of social services (Tilda Swinton)—to be doing something indecent, immoral, intolerable. They’re outlaws, and the law—the ostensible moral law—is after them. But in Anderson’s view, they’re on the side of the good, indeed, the highest good. And he conveys the notion—again, latent in his other films, explicit here—that true and noble souls are in synch with nature, and that when true passion is thwarted or frustrated, all hell—or, rather, heaven—breaks loose, with a deluge of divine vengeance against those who would keep the couple apart.

Not surprisingly–or you might say, super surprisingly–church provides the backdrop for much of the action. St Jack’s, to be precise, AKA the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, RI. It witnesses the hatching of Sam and Suzy’s affection, it provides refuge from the storm outside, it brings the community together in a crucial way, it is the place where Judgment is handed down (via Tilda Swinton, in a truly scene-stealing performance), as well as the place where the final word, the one of Grace, is ultimately proclaimed.

I’m reminded of what Flannery O’Connor once wrote about her own work:

“I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.”

Substitute “deluge” for “violence” and you have Moonrise Kingdom. The Law (in the moving target form of parents, guardians, other scouts, the government, even the weather) hounds Suzy and Sam mercilessly, bringing them to the absolute end of themselves–and the church steeple. Theirs may be the way of grace, but it turns out the kids need to be unburdened of their stubbornness and fear just as much as their elders do. And despite how they’re experienced by the kids, the generally well-meaning adults share a common woundedness and desire for mercy themselves. Everyone on the island is ultimately in the same stolen canoe, as it were.

Grace in Moonrise Kingdom arrives at precisely the last moment possible, when Suzy and Sam have lost hope and are resigned to plummeting to their deaths (“I’m not a strong swimmer”). And it comes in the form of–drumroll, please–an adoption! This is pure one-way love, straight from Captain Sharp to the undeserving Sam, who has put the sad policeman through quite an ordeal. Without a doubt the best on-screen adoption since… Win Win last year.

The final scene finds Sam dressed in new clothes, the clothes of, yes, his savior. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, everything points to rebirth. Again, the religious implications are not exactly subtle. The irony that these new clothes are a police uniform–i.e. what would normally signify the Law–only makes a charming movie that much more so. But hey, that’s just one man’s opinion. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out back. I’m going to find a tree to chop down.

On second thought, a few other notes:

  1. There is something undeniably and authentically cool about all the vintage Sunday School stuff in Moonrise. The Vacation Bible School play (make no mistake: that’s what it was), the camp chapel, the church basement. I strongly suspect the current accoutrements of American church life will not date nearly as well. But I hope I’m wrong.
  2. The Edward Norton subplot stuck out as particularly touching on the second viewing. He too is changed by the crisis–the rigamarole in the final scene at Camp Ivanhoe may not have changed outwardly, but inwardly it’s a whole new beast.
  3. Bob Balaban as prophet! The role he was born to play. Along with Russell Dalrymple of course.
  4. The Walt and Laura Bishop dynamic deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say, “half of those were self-inflicted.”
  5. Benjamin Britten. Who knew?!
  6. Perhaps my favorite bit of dialogue:

Sam: I knew we’d get in trouble. We knew people would be worried, but we did it anyway. But something also happened, when we first met. Something that we didn’t do on purpose. Something happened, to us.

Captain Sharp: That’s very eloquent. I can’t argue against anything you are saying. Then again I don’t have to because you’re twelve.




12 responses to “Take the Carbon, Leave the Bible: Some Thoughts on Moonrise Kingdom

  1. Thanks for this wonderful piece on an amazing movie! I have only seen it one time, but I plan on at least 4 more. What also struck me, coming at it from a “parent” perspective, was the gentle way the scoutmaster and the parents are portrayed…applying their versions of “law” with the best of intentions while themselves coming to an understanding of being caught in their own inability to meet their own standards, as in the mother’s affair with “Captain Sharp” and the scoutmaster’s losing his entire troop and being stripped of his command…and the brilliant uniting of one and all in a catastrophic judgment from which they all need deliverance.
    Also, Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp is absolutely brilliant. His subtle portrayal of a humble, plodding man who is in touch with his own failure and therefore also the power of love that simply overwhelms him to redeem an otherwise hopeless situation. And who in this world who has not felt the need to carry an enormous bottle of wine (or bourbon, here in the South) into the woods, get stumbling drunk and cop down a tree… “I may be powerless against the forces of the universe but I sure as hell whipped that tree!” Bill Murray is the perfect one to execute that life plan!

    • David Zahl says:

      Could not agree with you more, on all counts, M. I think I read somewhere that Wes actually wrote that part for Willis, which would make sense, given how completely Bruce nails it.

  2. Pete says:

    Great line, towards the end – Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) bursts into the church and asks, loudly, “Who’s in charge here?”

  3. MargaretE says:

    I loved this movie. Now I love it even more! Can’t wait to see it again through the eyes of… Dave Zahl 🙂 Thanks!

  4. Mary Evelyn McKee says:

    When Suzy allows Sam to pierce her ears,and sheds blood for his offering of dead beetle fishhook earrings .. stunning ,the Lamb of God symbolized in this little girl .she was willing to bear everything (in her Sunday school shoes)to be with Sam.

    • David Zahl says:

      What a lovely comment, Mary Evelyn! I think she’s even wearing the beetle earrings in the final shot of the movie. So touching.

      One thing I forgot to mention in the post. A few years ago Wes’ brother Eric–the grown Khaki Scout shaving Harvey Keitel in Moonrise (and the voice of Kristofferson in Fantastic Mr. Fox)–came out with a young-adult book called Chuck Dugan Is AWOL (http://www.amazon.com/Chuck-Dugan-Is-AWOL-Novel/dp/B000H2MI0G/). I don’t think anyone bought it, but it’s a delightful read, packed with Eric’s wonderful watercolors (he’s the one responsible for the DVD covers of Rushmore, Tenenbaums and Zissou). Anyway, I was struck by how similar the plot and setting of Moonrise were to it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chuck Dugan played a role in the genesis of the film somehow. So if you can’t get enough of the Moonrise vibe and aesthetic, it might be a fun thing to check out.

  5. John Zahl says:

    It’s too bad that David Zahl doesn’t know enough about Wes Anderson to speak authoritatively about his films. Not!

  6. Kory says:

    Just finally watched this, it was brilliant. This post was great as well

  7. William Robertson says:

    I just got around to this film, and came here sort of figuring David would have something great to say about it. I was right.

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