MOONRISE KINGDOM is a piquant masterpiece that will be as fresh and as relevant 50 years from now as it is today. The ironic tone and the artificial conceit form a wry tension with the genuine sentiment at work here, forming a quintessence that parses the mystery and absurdity of the human condition with a startling clarity and insight.
It is the late summer of 1965, and the bucolic New England island of New Penzance is about to suffer upheavals of many types. As the homespun narrator (Bob Balaban) warns the viewer, a devastating storm will strike in a few days, one that will change the shape of the island. Another story, though, will cause far more damage before reassembling the status quo. That story is of 12-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a plucky Khaki Scout and orphan cursed with an adult’s intelligence and a child’s perspective, and his elopement with 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward), a sophisticated local girl saturated with too much blue eye-shadow and a Continental brand of existential ennui. It is their innocent sense of anarchy and adventure that reveals the fissures and underlying tensions burbling beneath the surface complaisance in the marriage of her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), the lonely sadness of the island’s only cop (Bruce Willis), and the imposed sense of order of the brandy-sipping local Khaki Scoutmaster (Edward Norton), from whose custody Sam slipped.
A carefully constructed artifice of everyday life is revealed, one that the deliberately stylized look of the film mimics with an impudent impunity. Primary colors, geometrically daunting visual compositions, and the deadpan psychodrama circle the contradictions of human nature that they reveal. Adults face the truth that confronts them with hysteria, while the children of the piece operate in a parallel world where the bald truth is accepted with equanimity, even welcomed as comforting in a social context where duplicity, tacitly acknowledged, is the norm.
The ensuing chase becomes an odyssey from which some will recover, but none will escape unscathed. The conventions of mid 20th-century social and cinematic conventions acutely at odds with modern counterparts heighten the action. The actors are anything but stifled by the strict constraints of Anderson’s idioms. Rather, they push them to the limits by respecting them with the fevered fanaticism of religions conversion. There is in the very spareness of performance and direction that makes, in particular, the nascent sexuality of the 12-year-olds at one so innocent, and yet so visceral, though the only penetration involved is that of ear-piercing.
MOONRISE KINGDOM, by provoking the viewer to sift through the old and the new, creates a true sense of timelessness, imbuing its themes of right, wrong, love, hate, and the meaning of life itself with the power of the lighting strike and thunderstorms with which it is rife. When one adult tells another to stop feeling sorry for himself, there is something heart-stopping in the way he responds with a “why” that is full of curiosity, not self-pity. No child in the story, no matter how given to self-reflection, would be able to fathom either the question or the answer. This is a comedy of rare intelligence, and a farce of whimsical philosophical import.