Unsafe Houses: Moonrise Kingdom and Wes Anderson’s Conflicted Comedies of Escape

By J. M. Tyree

from Film Quarterly Summer 2013, Vol. 66, No. 4

In an early scene of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s latest comic confection, dopey Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) reviews the tree-house building efforts of his troop, finding that they have placed their childish construction at a fatal height. “That’s not a safe house, dude,” he notes; if anybody falls, “that’s a guaranteed death.” Yet, as the narrative will reveal near its close, when one of his charges is dangling from a church spire in a hurricane, this is a world in which nobody will ever fall, in which death is far from guaranteed, and in which the 12-year-old male protagonist, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), will even survive being struck by lightning. Anderson’s movie is a tree house of sorts, or to shift the metaphor, a miniature island like the one that forms the setting of Moonrise Kingdom: New Penzance, which in many ways appears removed from serious harm. Nevertheless, this remains a movie marked by laughter in the teeth of things that are not at all funny— a pleasing trademark of its director’s productions.

Escapism is the mode as well as the subject of Moonrise Kingdom. It’s also the plot: Sam sneaks off from his mid- 1960s summer camping expedition with the Khaki Scouts to join his troubled runaway girlfriend, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), in the hours leading up to the hurricane. On the lam from various representatives of community— Scout Troop 55, Suzy’s litigious parents (Laura and Walt Bishop, played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the hapless representative of the Island Police (Bruce Willis), and finally the Dickensian figure of Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who threatens to take Sam away to a “juvenile refuge” where shock therapy is administered— the lovers find a brief respite on a stretch of beach. Their map says that this place is called the Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet, and like the childhoods of the movie’s protagonists, it is about to be swept away by a storm. While they puzzle over a better name for their secret world, the movie’s title offers itself as the sentimental heading for a preteen moment of nostalgia that knows it exercises real dominion over nothing, forming a prelude to adult existences that are portrayed throughout as sad and lonely. Commenting on his overall feelings about life, marriage, and childrearing, Walt sums things up by expressing his hope that “the roof flies off and I get sucked up into outer space”; his dollhouse- like property is not the safe house he might have imagined. His rival for his wife’s affections, meanwhile, spends his time in his trailer or sulking in his cop car listening to sorrowful Hank Williams tunes. This is another Anderson movie with a seemingly cheery ending in which, on closer scrutiny, there is not all that much to look forward to.

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Moonrise Kingdom illuminates its director’s conflicted attraction toward (and arch skepticism about) the classical “comedy of love” that, according to scholar G. Beiner, encompasses “courtship, marriage, friendship, family reunion, and . . . a return to a reconstituted civilized order” (Shakespeare’s Agonistic Comedy, Associated University Presses, 1993, 30). Such comedy inevitably relies on a “temporary but extreme departure from everyday constraints,” but as with the return of the runaways in Moonrise Kingdom, it binds its escapees back into twisted knots of communal ties. Anderson pushes the “comedy of love” to a mannered extreme, granting his viewers a refuge that’s well aware of its own illusory status as an “insubstantial pageant,” to use a phrase from a classic story about tempests, islands, and families. Yet the movie’s rejection of suffocating biological parents in favor of adoptive arrangements and ad-hoc networks of friendship charts new lines of flight in the director’s work away from pious interpretations of family life, Anderson’s most consistent comic target.

Sam and Suzy’s flight joins a long list of escapes, many of them viewed as sophomoric, in Anderson’s movies. In the first scene of his first feature, Bottle Rocket (1996), Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) stages his departure from a group home for troubled rich kids by knotting together his bed sheets and climbing out the window to meet his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson). It’s clear that their plan is as ridiculously elaborate and impractical as Sam and Suzy’s, and both involve binoculars. Inez (Lumi Cavazos), the motel housekeeper in Bottle Rocket who meets these little-boys-lost when they are hiding out after their robbery of a bookstore, explains that they resemble “paper” or “trash” drifting with the wind. Asked to run away from her working life with Anthony, Inez reasonably asks where he’s going, and gets no satisfactory answer. In The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) sneaks away as a child to live for a few days in the Public Archives with his adoptive sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow); he then uses his old pup tent as his living quarters when he moves in with his mother after bombing out as a tennis star. (The private universe inside Richie’s tent, with its battery-powered record player, is reprised on the level of production design in Moonrise Kingdom.) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) depicts the oceanographic adventures of its protagonist (Murray) as a kind of Peter Pan-like frolic, his vessel with its dollhouse chambers little more than a glorified floating tree house for his ragtag club of deluded runaways. And in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) the quest of the idle rich for self-actualization on grand tour in India is gently mocked; much of the action takes place on a train whose little compartments form yet another example of miniaturized living quarters.

These small worlds are alternately viewed as oases from upsetting circumstances and as childish retreats by characters who refuse to grow up. The way that interiors refract psychology links Anderson’s shooting style to that of Max Ophüls, whose The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953) Anderson calls “a perfect film” (http://www.criterion. com/explore/115-wes-anderson). The Ophülsian tracking shot marks key moments in Anderson’s movies, including the opening of Moonrise Kingdom, in which the rooms of Suzy’s house are revealed as a series of intricately connected spaces and through which the pleasure of artifice asserts its domain. This effect also recapitulates the movement of Anderson’s camera through the rooms of the house in The Royal Tenenbaums, the ship in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the train in The Darjeeling Limited. When Sam presents his lover with a homemade pair of earrings fashioned out of insects skewered on fishhooks, Ophüls’s earrings might spring to mind by way of comic inversion. In Bottle Rocket, Dignan steals the earrings of Anthony’s mother in a practice burglary, whearas the escalating conflict between Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and Herman Blume (Murray) in Rushmore (1998) might seem like a joke at the expense of the (far more deadly) duel between a younger and older man over a love affair in Ophüls’s Liebelei (1933). Unlike Ophüls, Anderson studiously avoids overtly unhappy endings, yet he injects a liberal measure of Ophülsian rue into his comedy. Just as The Royal Tenenbaums runs the gamut from infidelity, drug addiction, career failure, attempted suicide, and quasi-incest, Moonrise Kingdom is replete with jokes about loveless marriages, foster care, self-harm, and uncaring parents. Many proponents and detractors of Moonrise Kingdom agree on the point that the movie is not ambitious, whether its “escapist fantasy” (Washington Post) is viewed as a plus or instead as a string of puerile “adolescent fantasies” (New York Observer). Other critics, however, such as Spectrum Culture reviewer Trevor Link, are better equipped to see that the strange “cognitive dissonance” of Anderson’s productions involves the startling degree of “pain and sadness that pools underneath the surface” of nostalgic fables ( 05/moonrise-kingdom.html/).

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With the notable exception of Max’s well-meaning and supportive father in Rushmore, parents in Anderson’s movies tend to be neglectful, troubled, drifting, or dead. His characters are often orphans of various kinds (literal or metaphorical) raising themselves amid a deficit of parental guidance and attempting to form relationships with mentors who themselves lack answers and seem trapped in crises of middle age. One keynote of Anderson’s comedies involves adults acting immature—behaving like “little children,” as schoolteacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) complains about her suitors in Rushmore. In Bottle Rocket, Anthony pleads to his kid sister Grace (Shea Fowler) that he’s “an adult,” but she’s unconvinced, pointedly asking him when he’s “coming home.” The only father figure in that movie, Mr. Henry (James Caan), is a fake who orchestrates events so he can rob the house of Anthony and Dignan’s rich friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) while their attentions are distracted by a bogus heist on a local cold-storage facility. Real parents are conspicuous by their absence—they never appear on screen in the movie. There’s a dropped hint that Dignan comes from a broken home; certainly he yearns to replace his missing family with various bands of brothers, most absurdly in the form of the Lawn Wranglers, Mr. Henry’s landscaping company, which in reality serves as a front and locationscouting vehicle for the valuables-laden houses of the suburban rich. Mr. Henry is what happens when, in more ways than one, mom and dad aren’t home. He welcomes Dignan to his crime lair with a childish game in which he pours water on him from a great height. Mr. Henry is one of the least redeemable adults in Anderson’s world, but like most of the rest he’s a grasping and selfish baby. And, in a move significant across many of Anderson’s productions, he’s also a baby-boomer.

By the same token, Anderson’s kids, such as Grace in Bottle Rocket or Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble), Max’s only school-friend at Rushmore Academy, are either acting wise beyond their years or else making charming fools of themselves by pretending to be prematurely jaded and world weary. It’s a particularly effective comic strategy given the director’s ability to elicit awkwardly naturalistic performances from child actors. When they rendezvous at the appointed place and time to begin their escape, Suzy turns up in a jaunty beret with her kitten in a basket and French pop music for her record player, while Sam is wearing a Daniel Boone frontier cap and smoking a miniature pipe. Sam’s theatrical and masculine adult props are undercut by his preference for wearing his deceased mother’s brooch as an ornament on his scouting uniform. “It’s not actually meant for a male to wear,” he explains, “but I don’t give a damn.” A related line of comedy is derived from the characters’ parroting of hardboiled quips that sound like they’re lifted from Hollywood genre movies. After the death of the scout troop’s dog in the wake of a melee with their pursuers (during which Suzy goes “berserk” and stabs a scout with “lefty scissors” in a parody of a showdown in a western), Suzy asks Sam, “Was he a good dog?” Sam replies in the clipped tone of a war movie: “Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die.” Suzy prefers to read adolescent fantasy novels and science fiction with titles such as The Disappearance of the 6th Grade, but when she’s cornered by her parents after her capture, she takes refuge in snarling out noir-like comments: “One of these days somebody’s going to get pushed too far.”

At a high point of absurdity, the lovers are “married” in a fake ceremony at the headquarters of the Khaki Scouts by Cousin Ben (Schwartzman), himself a parody of an Army chaplain from the movies in his aviator sunglasses. Before he offers them his services, Ben advises them to “go over there by that trampoline and talk it through.” As they confer, a kid bounces up and down on the trampoline, undercutting their till-death-do-us-part pretensions. Anderson characteristically turns to slow-mo as they exit the chapel as husband and wife, mocking the seriousness of the event with a shot that’s probably meant to tease Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets (1973). This sequence deploys its spoof of the armed services in a fashion somewhat similar to the ending of Rushmore, in which Max stages the clichés of the genre in his Vietnam play. The scene’s visual gags reference the tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the surfing soldiers of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). When, in Moonrise Kingdom, Scout Master Ward’s superior officer (Harvey Keitel) barks out, “I’m stripping you of your command,” the line (and the casting decision) emphasize the wannabe masculinity of phony militarism as an immature form of petty tyranny. Meanwhile, Ward’s hungry scouts, who have changed sides and decided to help the young lovers elope to a life of hard labor on a fishing boat after witnessing the miracle of Sam surviving a lightning strike, line up in quasi-official unit formation to receive food in the form of stolen gumballs.

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Moonrise Kingdom unfolds the theme of adoption from The Royal Tenenbaums, where Margot is introduced at social occasions as “my adoptive daughter” in yet another example of Royal’s awful parenting. This thread continues with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) may or may not be Zissou’s biological son. The lack of certainly doesn’t prevent Zissou from nicknaming him Kingsley “Ned” Zissou and ordering stationery embossed with this moniker; conversely, he first instructs Ned to call him Stevesie, then Papa Steve. The would-be parent in Moonrise Kingdom is Captain Sharp, the “sad dumb cop” having an affair with Suzy’s mother Laura. It’s worth noting that if Laura were to divorce and remarry Sharp, the love affair between his newly adoptive son and her daughter would mimic the quasi-incestuous romance between adoptive brother and sister in The Royal Tenenbaums. Like Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou, Sharp is totally unprepared for fatherhood— at one point he pours a “slug” of beer into Sam’s glass, where the alcohol pointedly mixes with the last sip of his milk—but Sharp’s lack of self-centeredness sets him apart from other would-be fathers or mentors in Anderson’s world. In fact, he shares with Scout Master Ward a deficit of traditionally male attributes (especially notable given their respective positions as mid-1960s cop and troop leader, respectively), appearing in a kid-like baseball cap and owlish glasses to be abused as a doormat by his married lover at their trysting spot near a miniature lighthouse sculpture. As with Sam’s bizarre scouting maxims (such as the idea that you can stave off thirst on a long trek by sucking on pebbles), masculinity is a joke in this world: when an ax-wielding Walt Bishop tells his children that he’s going to “go out back and find a tree to chop down,” it’s a wonderfully concise expression of useless machismo. He throws his shoe at his rival in another comic fit of petulance, reminding the viewer that his daughter has confessed to throwing a rock through a window and smashing a mirror because, as she puts it with awkward politesse, “I lost my temper at myself.”

The gender reversals in Moonrise Kingdom also serve to highlight Anderson’s equal-opportunity critique of parenting. Like Patricia (Anjelica Huston) in The Darjeeling Limited, who abandons her sons for a life as a nun in India—a passing jab at Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947)—after the death of her husband, the moms or their surrogates in Moonrise Kingdom often come off as bad or worse than their male counterparts. While Laura manhandles her daughter after discovering her in the tent with Sam after their night together on the Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet, Scout Master Ward supports Sam by telling him that his camping setup would have received “a Commendable” under Khaki Scout regulations. After their capture, Laura offers false comfort to Suzy while bathing her, imagining that her daughter feels “stupid” about what she’s done, but Suzy matter-of-factly retorts, “We’re in love. We just want to be together.” Laura writes off Suzy’s response as a cute quirk of girlhood that she’ll soon set aside, presumably for the feckless unhappiness that characterizes her own life. Particularly loveless—and even nameless—is the even less nurturing female presence of Social Services, whose cape, hat, and brusque manner suggest that she views her job more as a dogcatcher than as a guiding light for younger people in distress. (“Christmas Cheer,” suggests a newspaper clipping of an orphanage juxtaposed with Social Services, its quotation marks framing a newspaper photograph of children lined up at a dreary table for a Dickensian holiday meal.) Males without children of their own are the only adults who seem to be doing much nurturing on New Penzance, and they are doing it pretty ineptly.

Anderson’s generational barbs generally lack anger, which is what makes the darker undertones of Moonrise Kingdom surprising. The typical pattern of his movies involves conflict between older and younger characters that dissolves into rapprochement. The Royal Tenenbaums provides the most obvious example of this, but even Bottle Rocket, which at first glance appears to be an exception, succumbs to this logic: at the end of the movie, Dignan has “no hard feelings” toward Mr. Henry after his betrayal, and Bob is re-establishing family ties with his jerk older brother Future Man (Andrew Wilson), who has been bullying him relentlessly throughout the movie. Moonrise Kingdom intriguingly mixes a little more strychnine into the sugar bowl, in the sense that Suzy’s relationship with her parents never truly unfreezes. As Link notes in his review of the movie, Moonrise Kingdom offers more than “a polite and ultimately benevolent act of generational warfare,” since when Suzy says she hates her mother, she “really means what she says.” When the movie leaves its protagonists, they’re still sneaking around. Sam exits the Bishop home via a window, while the camera catches Suzy pausing in a doorway, hesitating and glancing out at something very briefly—some hatch from which to escape? a family member to confront? a hypothetical observer to challenge?—and then walks out of her preadolescence.


It’s not as though Anderson were turning to the more acid strategies of Todd Solondz, whose most recent feature, Dark Horse (2011), also features rotten parents and children who cannot seem to escape the stifling Americana of the family home. Dark Horse features Abe (Jordan Gelber), a fully grown, loudmouthed baby who drives a Hummer, lives with his parents, works for his dad, and clumsily crashes into everything and everyone he meets. The two filmmakers seem like diametrical opposites on nearly every level, and Solondz’s rigorous empathy does not extend to granting his movie’s characters much of anything except poignantly trashy fantasy wish fulfillments. Solondz seems to offer everything that Anderson is missing, and his ruthless refusal to disengage from the most distressing facets of contemporary life serves a different comic impulse. It would be difficult to imagine a character in a Wes Anderson movie uttering Abe’s bon mot that “Humanity’s a fucking cesspool.” (His reaction to his girlfriend’s question, “You don’t want to get your own place?”—”What for?”—seems more amenable to translation between the filmmakers.) Both directors view home as a place that feels unsafe yet inescapable—to stay is fatal, to return is perilous, to flee for good is ultimately impossible. At least in this specific sense, Solondz and Anderson might appear as radically dissimilar disparagers of national mythologies about the core goodness and superiority of the nuclear family.

Raising the specter of Solondz’s far less “acceptable” comedy might seem to reinforce the critique of Anderson’s work as being problematically detached from its historical moment. (And what a moment for a comedian to miss, one might imagine Solondz thinking.) Yet Moonrise Kingdom, despite its deliberative retreat into the miniature world of a nostalgic past, arguably tips its hand through its various anachronisms. Despite its 1965 setting, the movie contains jokes that seem historically out of place, like Cousin Ben’s reprisal of war-movie stereotypes, which seems to refer to tropes from later films about Korea and Vietnam. It’s similarly difficult to picture a person like Scout Master Ward flourishing in the leadership of the Scouts in the atmosphere of paranoiac militarism that characterized the cold-war superpatriotism of the mid-1960s. And don’t Suzy’s parents act more like drifting and self-centered refugees from the 1960s than like the generation who lived through the Great Depression? This suspicion is reinforced by the reappearance of Murray in a role that seems more apropos to the characteristics of the Me Generation than anything else. Murray is a consistent placeholder in Anderson’smovies for a certain type of baby-boomer who becomes depressed in late middle age, but here one is asked to believe that he was raised in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that the veil of historical fiction sometimes appears rather thin, but this aspect of the movie feels consistent enough to suggest another case of Anderson’s wariness about his own penchant for escapism. Perhaps Moonrise Kingdom might be revisited as a slightly more trenchant fable suggesting how one’s parents (and presumably their parents before them) are atavistic figures, like poet Philip Larkin’s moms and dads, who were “fucked up in their turn/by fools in oldstyle hats and coats/Who half the time were soppy-stern/ and half at one another’s throats.”


  1. Carina Rush says

    Loved this article! Only one small correction, Scout master Ward says “That’s not a safe altitude” while looking at the tree house (not “That’s not a safe house, dude).

  2. Pingback: On The “Unsafe Houses” Of Wes Anderson « Movie City News

  3. Bruce says

    Some good insights here, though the reader needs to have seen too many movies to appreciate them. I hope the author moves away from a somewhat pedantic or at least academic wrapper to something a little more direct and economical. I think I’d enjoy reading more of her reviews then.

  4. Moonrise Kingdom is my favorite Wes Anderson flick, but I had never put together so systematically his penchant for escapism. The blurred lines of gender and maturity are more than simple reversals, or parodies however. The faux militarism is subtly glorified, one gets the sense that Sam never really wanted to quit the Khaki scouts, the entire troupe is eventually smitten with Suzy’s stolen children’s fantasy novels, and the central myth of the film, the Moonrise kingdom itself, are all oases which are not necessarily “childish”, neither are they wholly advocated. Rather both worlds, the adult and the children’s, are simultaneously flawed yet marked with their own comforts and mechanisms of perpetuation. The flood of documentation of the piece, even if anachronistic, can give us an even clearer sense of simulacrum by which characters play their role and find their orientation.

  5. Pingback: Moonrise Kingdom: Cultural tools of escapism enabling a storm of youthful rebellion. – The Overlook

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