There is a wonderful moment in Moonrise Kingdom. Suzy just revealed a painful secret to Sam and he laughed at her. She stormed away and hid inside the tent. Shortly after, Sam opens the entrance to the tent and says, “I’m sorry… I’m on your side.” And the conflict is over. It’s very mature. Yet those two are outcasts in the world. No one understands them. But more important, they don’t understand the world. They are looking for a way to navigate the world in the same way they attempt to french kiss. And in this way, they are connected to everyone else.
Despite its extreme charm, Moonrise Kingdom is an existential nightmare. It is a narrative demonstrating what Schopenhauer said in The World as Will and Idea, life consists of “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” Physical circumstances may change — generally for the better in this film — but no one is anymore happy at the end than at the beginning. They simply make it through today in order to be allowed to make it through tomorrow.
None of this depresses me. This is simply the way I see the world. At least for the time, I have made my peace with the Will. But most people find my outlook on the world to be a decidedly unpleasant one. So why does everyone seem to find this film so pleasant? Is it just that they don’t over-think films like I do? Or is it just that it is about children and we assume that things will work out? After all, we all know how well things work out for our childhood selves! I don’t think it is any of this.
Wes Anderson creates such odd characters that we don’t see them as real people, even as we recognize ourselves in them. The characters are taciturn as they suffer through their lives — just as we all secretly think we are. It doesn’t matter how much we complain about the injustices that plague us, there are more profound wounds that we simply don’t have the language to communicate. But only in an Anderson film do we see characters manifested who share this existential dread that, just as always, today will be just like yesterday.
A good part of Wes Anderson’s work leaves me cold. But as big a part of it is exceptional work. And I think Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of his that I’ve seen — unquestionably a great film. But it is great almost by accident. And this may be why so many of his films don’t really work. They are cut off from external reality, and so only sometimes do they manage to grab hold of an internal truth and sing it. Otherwise, it is just odd characters acting in odd ways.
Having said this about his films working, I want to be clear that they are always well made. He has a distinct visual style that is usually rendered with great care. And that really is the case here. Moonrise Kingdom is an incredibly beautiful film. It could consist of only still images and it would be compelling. What’s more, it is genuinely funny with an extremely well structured story that triumphs over its own cherished absurdity. But what makes it work escapes me. And I think it escapes Anderson too.
So what is the “happy” truth in Moonrise Kingdom? I think it is that we are all lost — muddling through life on a hopeless quest. One moment we are the shame of the troop and the next, we are the hero. But always, we should cut each other some slack. Not that it matters.