Fact and Fiction:
Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival, the eccentricities of Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater.

I suspect I entered into Wes Anderson’s latest offering Moonrise Kingdom with expectations set a smidgen too high—the killer cast, the effective tweeness of the trailer perfectly encapsulating Anderson’s idiosyncratic visual and narrative style—which is a shame, as it really is a very good example of his filmmaking. This, from someone who is ambivalent about his overall output (hated Tenebaums, loved Mr. Fox, middled on Rushmore).

At first glance a typical tale of (very) young love between two outsiders, Moonrise Kingdom lays out, in grand form, the developing bond between 12-year-old Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both giving impressive first professional performances), who meet whilst Sam is on a Scout camp on the fictional Island of New Penzance off the coast of New England where Suzy’s family lives. The film’s narrative pivots around events occurring on Sam’s Eagle Scout camp the summer following their brief first meeting.

True to Anderson’s personal style, both the voluminous, clever dialogue and bright, saturated visual tone are heavily stylised and instantly recognisable. Moonrise Kingdom shares a lot of common story and thematic elements with Richard Ayoade’s winning 2010 film Submarine—both being coming of age tales of young love and familial angst—but it is Moonrise Kingdom’s idiosyncratic tonality that clearly demarcate them as very different cinematic experiences. Whereas Submarine, though including its fair share of quirkiness, is actually the tale of a couple of kids, the protagonists in Moonrise Kingdom speak and interact dramatically as if they are mini adults, albeit highly stylised versions. This is not a bad thing per se; the kids give uniformly excellent performances, but performances that are (quite purposefully) heavily theatrical in nature. Similarly, Anderson makes very purposeful use of specific props, colours, and locations, staging the mise-en-scene as much as the actors and their dialogue. The big name (adult) supporting cast keep the surrounding narrative ticking along nicely with no obvious weak link, though Frances McDormand as Suzy’s frazzled mother Laura and Bruce Willis as New Penzance’s lone police officer Captain Sharp stand out above the crowd.

Thematically, Moonrise Kingdom runs somewhat counter to its twee visuals and witty repartee, instead focusing on the personal darkness enveloping these kidults due to isolation and prejudice against ‘difference’ but also the redemptive potential of kindly interventions and a little selflessness. Overall, I found Moonrise Kingdom a pleasant tasting, if slightly bittersweet cinematic medicine to swallow, making me feel better but leaving me with little in the way of lingering side-effects, good or bad.

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Conversely, my expectations going into the latest Richard Linklater-Jack Black collaboration were somewhat lowered, as I’m not really a fan of Black despite him being reasonably central to a number of films I’ve enjoyed such as High Fidelity. However, being somewhat of a Linklater devotee, I dutifully trooped off to see Bernie and I was pleasantly surprised.

The film tells the bizarre story of the much loved small town (assistant) mortician Bernie Tiede who wins the friendship of the town’s crankiest (and very rich) occupant, only to later confess to her murder much to the disbelief of the townsfolk, and in certain cases with some measure of approbation. In an interview, I heard that Linklater stumbled across the story in the news before the case came to trial and due to the bizarre-sounding circumstances, attended the trial, which in turn led to the film idea.

Bernie is a docudrama in a very true sense in that Linklater seamlessly fuses dramatisation with interview footage of actual Carthage residents, who are quite candid about their feelings relating to Bernie and his late friend and alleged victim Marjorie Nugent. This structure gives the film a fresh, vital feel that successfully lifts the overall interest factor. Jack Black is perfectly cast in the title role being, for a Black character, pleasantly restrained. I don’t quite buy the standout performance line some people have touted: sure, he’s near his best, but this is par for the course for many actors. What works particularly well is the fit between Black’s talents and the actual Bernie’s similarly large, if less abrasive personality. Shirley MacLaine provides the perfect foil as embittered rich widow Marjorie against which Bernie’s largesse of kindness and generosity butts up. Matthew McConaughey, in a another fine NZIFF showing (you can also see him relishing his dark role in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe) ably plays local district attorney Danny ‘Buck’ Davidson, who leads the prosecution in Bernie’s murder trial and who is accused of political grandstanding at Bernie’s expense by some of the interviewees.

Despite the chance of great visual disparity across the various dramatised and interview segments, Linklater skilfully maintains an even visual tone and narrative flow in his edit. Some have criticised the lighter tone, which could have been further mined for its darker qualities, but I enjoyed the humour pushed forward riding atop the darker thematic undercurrents.

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Bernie’ screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2012, opening in Auckland on July 19, Dunedin on July 26, Wellington on July 27, Christchurch on August 9, and the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals


Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.