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August 2012

Scene4 Magazine: "Moonrise Kingdom" reviewed by Miles David Moore August 2012

Miles David Moore

Fey, twee, precious—these are all words that have been used to describe the movies of Wes Anderson.  They are words that made seeing Wes Anderson's movies a low priority for me.  I liked, but did not love, the films of his that I have seen (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and I did not find them particularly memorable.  The Anderson films that I have not seen (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) put me off with the fey, twee preciousness of their trailers and their advance word.

But now Moonrise Kingdom has arrived, and Wes Anderson has made a convert.

Moonrise Kingdom, to be sure, is fey, twee, precious, and even pixilated from beginning to end.  But it is fey, twee, precious, and pixilated with a purpose. With the help of an impeccable cast and some remarkable collaborators—co-scenarist Roman Coppola, cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, editor Andrew Weisblum, production designer Adam Stockhausen—Anderson draws us in to the world of New Penzance Island circa 1965, a place and time in which the only rule is that all the rules are up for grabs.  The name of the island may suggest Gilbert and Sullivan, but Moonrise Kingdom plays more like a post-modern Midsummer Night's Dream, with a touch of Alice in Wonderland mixed inThe tone of the film is nearly impossible to describe; it is hard to think of any other film that creates such a mood of magical, childlike innocence, while simultaneously undercutting it with surreal, sophisticated wit.

Essentially, Moonrise Kingdom is the love story of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), two twelve-year-olds who have been secret pen pals for a year.  Sam and Suzy's plan is to steal away to a secluded cove on the island, where they will celebrate their love.


Sam and Suzy are misfits in what passes for society on New Penzance.  Sam, a bespectacled orphan who wears a coonskin cap and smokes a corncob pipe, has made an enemy of every foster parent he's ever had and every boy in his scout troop, if for no other reason than he's smarter and more motivated than they are.  Unsmiling, knee-socked Suzy hates her classmates, her prissy kid brothers, and her clinically depressed lawyer parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand). She loves her cat, her Francoise Hardy 45s, and her suitcase full of girls' adventure books.  Standing with binoculars on the lighthouse turret of her parents' Victorian house, Suzy sees everything on the island—especially her mother's secret trysts with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island's police chief.

Sam and Suzy's disappearance sparks an island-wide search, led by the aforementioned adults and the anal-retentive Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton).  Others who get involved in the chase include Tilda Swinton, as a frighteningly blue-uniformed government functionary known merely as Social Services, and Jason Schwartzman, who plays roughly the same role in Moonrise Kingdom that William Holden did in Stalag 17.


Several factors complicate the search for Sam and Suzy. One is the pact between Sam's fellow scouts that Sam will not come back unharmed.  ("I don't want to be the one who didn't have a weapon," one says.)  Another, as a narrator (Bob Balaban) explains at the beginning, is that an epic storm is headed straight for New Penzance—one that will inundate the island and change it forever.

Anderson's films are renowned for their artificiality, and throughout Moonrise Kingdom the camera acts as a proscenium arch, every scene framed as meticulously as a painting. This could easily be annoying, but here it only accentuates the film's off-kilter charm.  Anderson delights in the eccentric details of his characters' lives, and his directorial style allows the audience to delight in those details to the greatest possible degree.  Whether it's the way Suzy's mother uses a megaphone to call her children to the dinner table, or the way Scoutmaster Ward holds his cigarette away from the scouts trying to earn their fireworks-making badge, Anderson keeps beguiling us, in the process disarming any criticism of his farfetched yet bizarrely logical plot.

I loved the film's deep, pristine colors, which recall the great days of Jack Cardiff with Powell and Pressburger.  (The word "Technicolor" appears more than once in the end credits.) Alexandre Desplat and Mark Mothersbaugh are the film's composers of record, but the soundtrack is an imposing, eclectic delight, calling on many sources.  (Francoise Hardy, Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams are virtually characters in the story.)  The cast of stellar character actors is as excellent as you'd expect, but Gilman and Hayward—both making their screen debuts—steal the picture with their wonderfully deadpan performances.  Gilman in particular has a diffident but steady charm that suggests he will have a substantial career.

Anderson's tale is obviously a tall one, yet he entertains us so completely that we don't care.  Richard Linklater, in his latest film, Bernie, does something even more remarkable: in semi-documentary fashion, he presents a movie about a true story crazier than most tall tales you've ever heard.

Instead of the fictional New Penzance Island, Bernie takes place in the very real town of Carthage, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border.  Bernhardt (Bernie) Tiede, a Louisianan transplanted to Carthage, is the title character, and the cast of the film includes several actual residents of Carthage, commenting on Bernie's story.

Bernie (Jack Black) moves to Carthage to work as an assistant funeral director, and within a few years is one of the most beloved people in the town.  He is a sweet, empathetic soul with just enough of the con man in him to make him interesting: he always finds the right words of consolation for the bereaved, while simultaneously persuading them that they really do want to buy the most expensive coffins for their loved ones.


Bernie is the star of the church choir, the community theater, and virtually every public event in Carthage.  He courts everybody in town, though he pays rather less attention to young women than to others.  ("Was Bernie Gay?" asks one of the movie's chapter titles, and the townspeople weigh in enthusiastically on the question.)  Elderly women are Bernie's favorites, but—even knowing that—the Carthaginians are flabbergasted when Bernie assiduously starts courting the good opinion of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a woman who doesn't have a good opinion of anyone except Marjorie Nugent.

Widow of the town tycoon, Marjorie is a sour, dictatorial curmudgeon, loathed by everyone in Carthage; inheriting her husband's bank, she routinely throws loan applications in the wastebasket.  Nevertheless, over time Bernie is able to breach her formidable defenses and win her friendship.  He quits his job at the funeral home to become her personal assistant.  Marjorie and Bernie go to restaurants and the theater together, take spa treatments and expensive vacations together. Marjorie even changes her will to leave her entire fortune to Bernie, disinheriting her unloved and unlovable children.


One day, Marjorie simply stops showing up in town.  Bernie tells everyone Marjorie is ill and in a nursing home.  No one cares about Marjorie, so no one checks up.  Bernie continues with his usual life, though the surprise gifts he has always loved to give people become bigger and more expensive.

Ten months go by.  Then the police show up at Marjorie's house and open the chest freezer in her garage…

If you listen closely, you can hear Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie spinning in their graves, cursing themselves for not thinking of this story first.  But it's all absolutely true—taken from a 1998 Texas Monthly article, "Midnight in the Gardens of East Texas," by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.  Linklater and Hollandsworth don't make Bernie a whodunit or even a whydunit, though they lay out a cogent scenario as to why Bernie planted four slugs in Marjorie's back. (It wasn't the money, at least not primarily.)  What really beguiles Linklater and Hollandsworth—and the audience—is the reaction of the people of Carthage to the crime.  To put it simply: Bernie was their friend, Marjorie wasn't.

Audiences might have trouble with the wry, matter-of-fact style of Bernie.  (That is an obvious deduction; the film fled from theaters quickly, despite mostly enthusiastic reviews.)  This is too bad, because Bernie is one of the most remarkable films of the past decade.  Linklater and Hollandsworth never tell the audience what to think of Bernie, Marjorie, and the people of Carthage; they merely present the facts, and let viewers draw their own conclusions.  Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the prosecutor who brings Bernie to justice, should by all rights be the hero of the story. However, viewers can just as easily construe him as the villain, because so many of the townspeople do.

It is hard to think of any film that closely resembles Bernie; the closest one I can think of is To Die For, Gus Van Sant's 1995 black comedy about a small-town murder told via the first-person testimony of the perpetrators and survivors.  Nicole Kidman, as the aspiring TV weatherwoman who hires teenagers (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon), won several critics' awards and an Oscar nomination for her performance; at the time, I thought her performance overpraised.  On the other hand, it is impossible to overpraise Jack Black's performance as Bernie.  Always one of the most likable of actors, Black far exceeds anything he has previously done on screen.  His infinitely sweet, infinitely generous, infinitely mysterious Bernie is one of the most unforgettable screen characters of recent years; his performance screams for an Oscar nomination that it probably won't get, because the film wasn't a hit and appeared too early in the year.

If you can see your way past Black, you will notice how skillfully Shirley MacLaine underscores Marjorie's nastiness simply by the way she chews her re-fried beans, like a spiteful cow.  You will also notice Matthew McConaughey's live-wire performance as Davidson; it's a performance he's given before, but nobody does it better. The various people who play Carthaginians—a combination of actors and actual townspeople—hold their end up nicely; one of the most enjoyable is Kay McConaughey, Matthew's mom.

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©2012 Miles David Moore
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Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and the Film Critic for Scene4.
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