God Shows Up… roughly: the Gospel according to Wes Anderson

When Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out on DVD in 2004, in the extras it included an interview Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach did with Italian film critic Antonio Monda. Typically, it’s slightly absurdist, with the odd moment of sincerity, like the time when Monda asks Anderson and Baumbach if they believe in God.

“No,” replies Baumbach without hesitation.

So Monda directs his question to Anderson, “What about you?”

“I think so,” Anderson says sweetly.

Baumbach looks surprised. “Really?”

Anderson demurs only slightly, “Yeah, I mean… I mean, roughly.”

To me that seems like an entirely appropriate answer for a filmmaker who addresses huge issues like the nature of family, human brokenness, grief and depression, the challenges of under-parented adults, and a hunger for purpose, but in whose films God only appears obliquely.

Critic David Zahl writes, “The very mention of a religious dimension to Wes Anderson’s films may sound surprising, even bizarre. It is certainly not what he is known for.”

In fact, Zahl observes, rather cleverly, that because Anderson’s films are so extraordinarily intricate and perfectly balanced, “…it seems there is no room in a Wes Anderson film for any deity other than Wes Anderson.”

But God does show up in Anderson’s films. It might take some faith to see it, but in all that father-hunger, and male ambition, all that desire for love and another existence, you can find God lurking in the background… roughly. Here’s where I see God showing up in Wes Anderson films:

In Unexpected Ways

In The Darjeeling Limited (2010), Anderson tells the story of three wealthy brothers trying to deal with the sudden death of their father by taking a “spiritual journey” across India. All three men are absurdly dysfunctional but lovable (it’s a Wes Anderson film after all) and to a greater or lesser degree have come to India looking for closure or healing.

A lesser filmmaker might have turned their train journey into a simple parody of the way Westerners attempt to commodify Eastern spirituality (I thought that’s where it was going when it started), but Wes Anderson has something more complex in mind. The Whitman brothers do indeed undergo a spiritual journey, just not the kind they imagined.

Francis (Owen Wilson) has designed a detailed itinerary and planned a ritual they can undertake together part way through the journey. It’s some traditional practice he read about in a book or online involving blowing on a feather and burying it. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrian Brody) can’t enter into the formality of the ceremony with the level of intensity Francis expects of them, and so this farcical exchange happens:

Jack: Which direction did your’s go?

Francis: What do you mean?

Jack: Your feathers… mine blew toward the mountains

Francis: That’s not right. It’s not supposed to get blown away. You’re supposed to blow on it then bury it.

Peter: I didn’t get that. I still have mine.

Francis: You guys didn’t do it right. I asked if you read the instructions. You did it wrong… I tried my hardest. I don’t know what to do.

Peter: I don’t think Dad would’ve hated it.

Francis is crestfallen. His “spiritual experience” has been a failure, and back on the train things begin to unravel. The three brothers fall out with each other and are eventually thrown off by the chief steward. Forced to hike through the countryside, they come across three boys drowning in a raging stream. The Whitmans dive in to rescue them, saving two, but one of the small boys dies. They retrieve his body and carry him back to his village.

What follows is the very spiritual experience they had been searching for, but none of them seem to realise it. The grieving villagers welcome them into their community, inviting them to attend the funeral, to participate in their collective sadness. The Whitmans find their hospitality overwhelming and the funeral confronts them with their unresolved grief. Francis’ attempts to circumvent their suffering by keeping them busy, including his lame feather ritual, go up in smoke.

God had turned up in the shocking accident in the river. And it completely reorients the brothers’ journey in ways they would never have expected.

In Moments of Candor

In Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), the recalcitrant chicken thief, Mr Fox (George Clooney) brings down untold grief upon his family, in the midst of which his longsuffering wife (Meryl Streep) presents him with a few home truths:

Mrs Fox: Twelve fox years ago, you made a promise to me, while we were caged inside that fox trap, that if we survived, you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck, or a squab – whatever they are, and I believed you. Why? Why did you lie to me?

Mr Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.

Mrs Fox: You are also a husband and a father.

Mr Fox: I’m trying to tell you the truth about myself.

Mrs Fox: I don’t care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable.

Mr Fox: Predictable? Really? What happens in the end?

Mrs Fox: In the end, we all die. Unless you change.

“I’m trying to tell the truth about myself… I’m a wild animal.” This is the truth about Mr Fox. He tries to rein in his true nature, but he is a feral animal who likes eating chickens even though he knows the grave damage it does to those he loves. And Mrs Fox loves him anyway, although it tries her patience sorely.

Of course, all of Wes Anderson’s characters are flawed. Deeply flawed. They’re wild animals too, barely able to conduct themselves in civilized society. But usually they know it. They just need to find love. It’s in their confessions of their brokenness that I hear the prompting of God.

As Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) says in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), “Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.”

God seems roughly present when these characters open up in search of love. This is seen in the various revelations and reconciliations that occurs between the Whitmans, but also in a scene like the one in Rushmore (1998) where Max Fischer (Schwartzman again) and Herman Blume (Bill Murray) discuss a mutual love:

Herman: She was my Rushmore, Max.

Max: I know. She was mine, too.

Or when Chas Tenenbaum, emerging from his self-inflicted seclusion, desperate to reconnect with his estranged father after losing his wife in a plane crash, makes this simple, gut-wrenching admission in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001):  “I’ve had a rough year, Dad.”

In these tender moments of human frailty the desire for understanding, forgiveness, and healing are palpable. They don’t always find love, but they need it. They need God.

In the Yearning to Escape

People are running away from something in nearly every Wes Anderson film, whether it’s the escapee M. Gustave in Budapest or suicidal Richie (Luke Wilson) in Tenenbaums. But at times this motif of escape is presented more positively, as a journey to a better place, a yearning for a world made right. Nowhere is this more obvious in Wes Anderson’s work than in Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

Twelve-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Susy Bishop have fallen in love and decide to run away together on the fictitious island of New Penzance. They have constructed a make-believe world, “Moonrise Kingdom”, a place where they can be free of the dysfunction and lovelessness of the adult world.

Sam is a foster child and Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are in crisis. They struggle with anxiety and self-pity. There’s no intimacy between them, and they sleep in separate beds. Both lawyers, they address each other as “counsellor”, as formally as if they were opponents in a courtroom. Bruce Willis plays a lonely, depressed police chief called in to search for the kids. Edward Norton is an officious scout troop leader. And Tilda Swinton plays the scariest social services officer you’ve seen, eager in her quest to put Sam into an orphanage.

Away from all this, Sam and Suzy set up camp at Moonrise Kingdom and go swimming. They dance to Françoise Hardy. They kiss. They’re like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s naive and foolish. But it’s beautiful. Even if it only lasts a little while.

As we heard David Zahl saying earlier, Wes Anderson’s films aren’t noted for their religious themes. He’s no Terrence Malick, that’s for sure. But as a filmmaker who presents fragile women and men struggling with grief and fear, anxiety and uncertainty – albeit in quirky, absurdist ways – he can’t help but show the hand of God in their circumstances and the voice of God in their hearts.

In The Darjeeling Limited, after their encounter with the drowned boy, the grieving Whitman brothers eventually reunite with their wayward mother. She is now a nun in an Indian monastery. It’s a fleeting reconnection. She leaves them with this benediction:

“God Bless You and keep you with Mary’s benevolent guidance in the light of Christ’s enduring grace. All my love, Your Mother, Sister Patricia Whitman.”

It seems Wes Anderson does believe in God… well, roughly.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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