I’ve been a huge fan of Wes Anderson for just about as long as I can remember being aware enough of filmmakers to be a fan of any. But I distinctly remember walking out of the Darjeeling Limited feeling deflated and disappointed—and half convinced, because that was such a bad movie, the guy would never make another good movie again. I made myself remain fairly skeptical about the buzz that was building around Moonrise Kingdom, but with so many positive reviews, I let myself give in to anticipation. And like most people who’ve seen it, I left the movie feeling fantastically entertained, and thinking I’d just seen one of Anderson’s best movies. But I still felt just a bit of the same twinge of disappointment I’ve felt about all of his movies since The Life Aquatic—a disappointment I might more flippantly express as the thought “That wasn’t as good as Rushmore.” Rushmore is great, though, so there’s plenty of room for movies that aren’t quite as good as it, and it would be silly just to be disappointed in Anderson for not matching Rushmore’s level. So it’s not so much disappointment that the films aren’t as good as Rushmore, but specifically that the way they’re not as good ends up feeling to me like some sort of regression, a pulling back from something that Rushmore was really pushing on.
I like the argument to be found in this post—well worth reading—about Moonrise Kingdom over at The New Inquiry. The entry argues that the heart of Moonrise Kingdom—and nearly all of Anderson’s other films—is a sort of exaggerated systematization of reality by the central characters. In Rushmore we see this in Max’s precociousness—his pointedly adult diction, his penchant for club-making, his directorial persona—which he believes to be the actual creation of an adult self. Our awareness that ultimately Max is only pretending adultness as a way to protect himself from a reality he feels trapped by is one source of the movie’s emotional payoffs—Max’s devotion to his pretense is endearingly heartbreaking, even as there’s a suggestion that adultness itself may never be more than pretending such. In Moonrise Kingdom, this precociously performed adultness has proliferated to cover everything in the movie:
“As ridiculous as the Khaki Scouts are, they are soon revealed to be no more ridiculous than the other disciplinary institutions that they mimic—the law, as figured by Suzy’s lawyer parents; the state, as figured by Social Services (Tilda Swinton, in some of the film’s most visually striking moments—of course); and perhaps the most absurd of them all, the police, as figured by Commander Sharp. In a climactic scene, all four avatars of systematized discipline bark into walkie-talkies attempting to sort out the proper placement of the two children, four criss-crossing domains of authority emblematized by five bewildered—but still entirely invested—adults. At the end, when Sharp agrees to foster the orphaned Sam, Sam switches out the Khaki Scouts uniform in which we have always seen him for a miniature police uniform. He has merely switched systems.”
If there’s any critical kick to Moonrise Kingdom, it seems to be here, in the way the orders of law and authority are revealed to be the same in kind (if not power) as the childish orderliness Sam clings to (just like Max) as a way of protecting himself from the harshness of his reality. But this is accomplished in Moonrise Kingdom by total proliferation: every aspect of the world of the film is encapsulated, and entirely so, by some iteration of this kind of order. As the film progresses, every challenge to the characters’ order is met and incorporated into its representation, so that, ultimately, Sam can be struck by lightning, the whole island can be flooded, and there’s no real danger in any of this because the precocious orderliness of the characters has defanged anything that might exceed it.
The presence of such danger is what I think raises Rushmore above everything else in Anderson’s oeuvre. There’s a real confrontation in Rushmore between Max’s theatrical orderliness and the reality of a world that can never be totally encapsulated within it, and this confrontation is what gives the film its most riveting moments of actual danger. We’re willing to join along with Max’s game of love for Miss Cross, right up until the creepy moment when he tries to force her to kiss him in her bed. Likewise, Max’s war with Herman Blume goes from adorably hilarious to genuinely dangerous rather quickly—and there’s no cartoonish pulling away from the danger in Rushmore: Blume’s life with his family actually falls apart, because (at least partially) of Max’s actions.
What’s most real, and therefore dangerous, in Rushmore is the difficult instability of actual adult relationships—particularly their sexual reality. Another emotional flash point of Rushmore comes when Miss Cross attacks Max by frankly bringing up the specter of sex: their play at adult love can’t withstand this confrontation with the potential reality of an actual sexual relationship. The negotiation the characters are forced to perform in Rushmore is between their own systems of representation and the reality of an interpersonal world that ultimately refuses their systems’ power. But while Max’s fear might be directed toward the reality of sexuality, that fear is his fear, not ours—what we recognize as the true danger of the film is the possibility that Max’s attempts at systematization might never admit the existence of a reality that exceeds it, a possibility that would eventually demand everyone fall in line as neutered extensions of Max’s precocious order. Against that potentiality, there’s something empowering to Rosemary Cross willingly raising the prospect of a real encounter with her as a kind of defense against Max’s desire to entangle her life entirely on his terms.
What I find disappointing about Moonrise Kingdom, delightful as it is, is that it’s almost like the aftermath of a world in which Max’s dangerous precociousness has already won. There’s nothing left—not even massive natural phenomena—to challenge the systems of representation the world of Moonrise Kingdom operates under. The only negotiations between people take place entirely between the characters’ systems, without ever placing any system under actual threat—and while this is a sort of negotiation that can be enjoyable and witty and cute (and Moonrise Kingdom really has a lot more to recommend it than just these things, for sure), in Rushmore, Anderson had already been working on what happens when his characters’ systems of representation come closer to direct encounter with a reality that exceeds them. For me, that’s a far more interesting problem, and I can’t help but see Moonrise Kingdom’s refusal of any sort of reality like that as disappointing, a timid pulling back on Anderson’s part from anything dangerous.