The Exposition and Invitation of Moonrise Kingdom: a Sequence Analysis

Normally, films have a set pattern through which they move to a new area or person; they begin far from the item of interest and gradually close in. The beginning of Moonrise Kingdom, however, moves from a close up of a painting inside of Suzy Bishop’s (Kara Hayward) home to a very long establishing shot outside. The interesting thing about the way Wes Anderson (director) initially leads us through the house, though, is that he has the camera move directly through the walls in a series of dolly shots that makes the house appear as if it were one long corridor. The composition of the house reminded me of the linear arrangement of props onstage, and I think Anderson intentionally gave the first few minutes of Moonrise Kingdom a metaphysical quality to establish its overall fictitiousness.

Anderson very deftly accomplishes a great deal of exposition at the beginning of Moonrise Kingdom by using several techniques of mise en scene such as composition, camera proxemics, and character placement as well as movement and sound. The unconventionality of the first several shots prepares the audience for the strangeness of Suzy and Sam Shukusky (Jared Gilman) as well as the quirkiness of the overall film.

A stationary shot at a little below eye-level introduces us to Suzy wearing her red checkered frock and white stockings she sports for the rest of the film. The girl serves as the dominant contrast in this shot because of her motion, but her binoculars, situated in the middle of the foreground, are the most emphasized object in the room. Throughout Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson includes numerous shots where Suzy looks directly at the camera through her binoculars, underscoring her desire to see exotic places and new things while she disregards reality. During the shot, Suzy walks down the stairs and moves toward the camera, but she doesn’t stop far enough away for us to get a good look at her; rather she pauses just where her head is out of frame before putting her cat on the table and picking up her binoculars. The movement introduces us to two of Suzy’s favorite things. By having Suzy place the cat in the foreground at the end of that shot, Anderson puts special emphasis on the creature, since Suzy packs tons of cat food for her trip in order to feed her pet but takes no food for herself.

Almost every shot in Moonrise Kingdom uses deep-focus, including this one, which allows us to see several key details in the background that serve as bits of foreshadowing and character development. For example, in the lower right corner of the room, a yellow suitcase sits beside a table piled with books. Later in the film, we see Suzy unpack far too many of her books from that same suitcase, a detail that clearly shows what the girl values. Also, near the bottom left corner of the door frame there is a picture of a bird which prefigures the scene where Suzy meets Sam in her raven costume. Furthermore, the bird picture in this shot emphasizes the theme of liberation and freedom that pervades much of Moonrise Kingdom.

During the film’s exposition, a record plays that explains the orchestral breakdown of a piece of music. Anderson is further emphasizing the set-up quality of the film; he wants us to see and hear a preparation as he prepares Moonrise Kingdom for us. As Suzy comes down the stairs and walks towards the table, the recording says “these smaller pieces are called variations, which means different ways of playing the same tune.” The word “variations” has a few implications for Suzy. First, she’s unconventional and puts a variation on the idea of the little rich girl. However, Suzy also has very severe mood swings as we see later on during the montage in which she and Sam exchange letters. This shot functions as a very informative but brief explanation of Suzy’s character and very subtly lays out what we can expect from her throughout the film.

Beginning slightly below eye-level as before, the next shot shows Suzy’s three brothers sitting together on the floor of their gender-divided room. The left side contains stacks of board games while the right has more girlish things like pink furniture and boxes, making the room appear equally split between Suzy and her brothers. However, when Suzy enters from the left, she sits on the window seat directly above her siblings, giving her a much more powerful appearance. Later in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson shows us the extent of Suzy’s authority, such as when she sends the khaki scouts fleeing from the woods after stabbing one of them with her handy scissors. I think that in this shot, Anderson is playing around a bit with composition, for the fan-like arrangement of Suzy’s brothers as well as their attire resembles the style of realist French paintings. The perfect symmetry of the shot and the balance between the boys’ cool-colored clothes in the lower half of the frame and Suzy’s warm-colored ones in the top half make for a beautiful image. I think that some of the purpose for this shot has to do with simple aesthetics.

As a punch-in of the previous shot, the frame is positioned very close to Suzy’s profile while she reads one of her fantasy books, Shelby and the Secret Universe. Suzy’s position makes the audience feel as if they were infringing upon her reading or invading upon her private time. Also, the attentiveness with which Suzy reads shows in the way she holds her book – directly before her eyes like she’s attempting to block out everything else – and the close up makes her reading appear much more important. With the camera closer to the girl, the audience is better able to connect with her and understand the significance of her reading. When Suzy picks up her book in the previous shot, we hear the record player say, “Here is Cursill’s theme played by the whole orchestra together,” and immediately when this shot begins, the music starts. Anderson uses the orchestra’s tune to make an auditory transition from the real world to Suzy’s fantasy one. The shift indicates Suzy’s eagerness to indulge in fabrication rather than actuality.

For the first time, we see Suzy look directly at the camera through her binoculars, emphasizing how desperately she wants to see the world in a different, more fantastic light. Starting out in a stationary eye-level shot once again, the camera begins to zoom out and reveals a frame-inside-a-frame with Suzy bordered by her window, making her look trapped and miniscule. The image reflects Suzy’s own feelings towards her smothering home and with her boring life. Pulling back even further, the camera gradually makes Suzy less and less significant, taking her power away in order to prepare us for the introduction to her home and parents. Once pulled completely back, the camera stops a bit too far from Suzy’s gorgeous, red, naval-styled home and the words “Moonrise Kingdom” pop up in yellow, cursive handwriting on the screen before flashing several different colors. I think that Anderson includes a touch of irony here in that even though Suzy’s home is beautiful, the low-key lighting of the shot paired with the greyness of the sky in the background and the dark expanse of water in the foreground diminishes its attractiveness by framing it between different shades of grey, making us sympathize with Suzy’s feelings of loneliness, enclosure, and ennui. Also, the title “Moonrise Kingdom” sounds so bizarre and exciting but in reality the island of New Penzance is quite ordinary (until, of course, Sam and Suzy make their escape).

In the previous shots, the music from the recording functioned as diegetic sound, emanating from the small record player one of Suzy’s brothers turned on. However, in this shot, the music switches from diegetic to non-diegetic sound and thereby brings us more into the story. Also, the auditory shift marks the transition from the inside of the Bishop’s house to the outside where Suzy wants to be, so the music’s more realistic sound emphasizes the girl’s desire to “fly the coop.” A menacing thunderclap punctuates the end of the orchestral song, suggesting that Suzy’s perception of her pathetic life may not be very far-fetched from reality. On a more metaphysical level, however, by having Suzy break frame and the music become non-diegetic, Anderson makes us feel like he’s presenting Moonrise Kingdom to us as a story rather than simply disregarding its immediate connection to the viewer.

Anderson gives us another shot of Suzy’s brothers arranged in their fan-shape. This time, however, the one in the center plays jacks while the other two neutrally watch with their hands on the sides of their faces. The shot mimics the one just a few moments before in the playroom, showing Suzy’s mundane perception (and quite possibly the actuality) of her life. Next, the camera bypasses two rooms side by side; Laura Bishop’s (Frances McDormand) on the left and Walt Bishop’s (Bill Murray) on the right. As a cinema convention, left usually heralds wrong-doing or error while right suggests correctness, a practice that follows in this shot, for Mrs. Bishop is having an affair unbeknownst to her husband, Mr. Bishop. Laura’s infidelity is emphasized in this shot by her posture; bare legs propped up on her table and curlers in her hair while she messes with her nails. She appears entirely focused on her appearance. Even though Laura and Walt are facing each other, Anderson clearly creates a division between the couple by literally putting a wall between them. On the other side of the divide, Walt plays the practical husband, reading the paper and unconcerned with much else.

Once we return to the inside of the Bishop’s home, the non-diegetic sound of the record switches to semi-diegetic because it again reverts to its record-like sound quality but remains at a constant volume as the camera moves through the home, indicating that its source cannot be onscreen. The switch back to unimpressive, subdued music within Suzy’s house further emphasizes her tedium with her family, which we see again at the end of this shot as she stares at us through her binoculars. When the camera reaches Suzy’s parents, the recording says, “First we hear the woodwind family; the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets, and the bassoons.” The breakdown of orchestral components parallels Anderson’s breakdown of the different characters in Moonrise Kingdom.

The deep-focus used in this shot shows the numerous piles of books in the foreground, which we later learn are due to Suzy’s parent’s occupations as lawyers. As in the other shots thus far, only small, warm lights provide illumination for the image, making the house appear homier and more inviting in order to establish the contented façade that Suzy’s parents maintain. Also, in the far plane of the background, the windows show the greyness of the weather outside that makes for an unhappy and dissatisfied envelope around the seemingly functional family atmosphere within. The camera moves through a hallway to provide another bit of foreshadowing by giving the audience a brief look at the bike that Mrs. Bishop uses when she goes to see Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the man with whom she is having an affair.

Finally, the camera stops on Suzy looking through her binoculars again, as if she were observing the introduction of her family alongside the audience. Most films are very one-sided rather than interactive, for they pretend the audience doesn’t exist so as to make everything in the film revolve around the story and the characters. However in Moonrise Kingdom's opening sequence, Anderson suggests that the film needs the input and attention of its audience. He deliberately acknowledges us in a raconteur-like fashion during the Bishop family’s exposition by having Suzy repeatedly break frame.

The way Anderson manipulates sound as a transitional technique, the linear, non-impeded camera movement, and the descriptive mise en scène indicates to us that he is building the necessary exposition for Moonrise Kingdom much like plays present the needed backstory before they begin. His use of long, sweeping pans through the Bishop’s uncommonly long hallways reminds me of how props are cleared off stage during theatrical productions, especially since each lateral pan shows us new series of rooms or sets in the film. By “setting the stage” for his audience, Anderson doesn’t throw the bizarre world of Moonrise Kingdom at us; he invites us to watch.

--written by Morgan Honaker, a filmmaker living in Austin, Texas