Now Reading


“Twee” is the adjective most commonly associated with director Wes Anderson’s output, and there is of course a thread of preciousness in the majority of his work. Many words have been spilled about his iconic aesthetic (90º turns, diorama-like sets, use of Futura, etc.), but little about his use of violence to balance out the sometimes saccharine milieu of his films. Anderson’s world is surprisingly violent in a way that harkens back to fables and fairytales, where the negligible stakes of his characters are raised by the savage reality they seem to inhabit.

While watching Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, there is a scene in which the lawyer (played by the always affable Jeff Goldblum) has his fingers amputated rather unceremoniously by Willem Defoe’s henchman, Jopling. It took me by surprise due to the suspense of the scene, a Hitchcock-ian thing that hitherto I had not seen Anderson attempt. However, it was not the type of thing I felt like I was used to seeing in his works, though I found that the director has, in fact, a history of violence.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly host to some of the most explicit violence in Anderson’s oeuvre: a room full of guards being slaughtered and several off-screen executions, along with the aforementioned fingers being lopped off. All of it punctuates what seems like a darling film about young love, pastries, a pink hotel, and the virtues of loyalty; the violence is used as a grounding device to reel the audience back into the pre-war context it inhabits. It’s the exact opposite of what we get in the vast majority of serious filmmaking, wherein the director saddles the audience with a gritty, sullen atmosphere and storyline, sprinkling the runtime with just enough hopes and dreams to keep us afloat.

In almost all of Anderson’s films, a startling moment of violence occurs. Moonrise Kingdom offered a pair of grim moments of all-too-real violence in the form of a stabbing involving left-handed scissors and man’s best friend getting pierced with an arrow. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has a woman maimed by a machete during a pirate attack. The Royal Tenenbaums seems to have some of the most horrific off-screen violence: a mother killed in a plane crash wherein only a dog survives (only to later be crushed to death by a car), the amputation of a half a finger at the hands of an estranged parent, and father-on-son gun violence—though the firearm in question is a lowly air rifle.

To what end is all this violence shown in what otherwise amounts to films full of minute visual details, charming music, child-like illustrations, and a sense of whimsy unmatched by its peers? The aforementioned balancing of these traits with surprisingly grisly violence certainly might explain Wes Anderson’s choice to include it. However, I think the answer goes deeper into the themes he explores with both narrative and character.
Other than the accusations of being overly twee, Anderson’s films are often noted for their inclusion of a man-child as a character (or in the case of The Darjeeling Limited, all three main characters along with their deceased/absent father). This trope is economical, as it offers us the notion of stunted emotional growth along with a host of other psychological issues. Anderson explores these themes throughout his canon, often centering his stories on the pursuit of adulthood by overcoming the emotional roadblocks constructed by eccentric childhoods, both by the world they were born into and the idiosyncratic parents that reared them.

The violence, then, seems to occupy the same space that it does in the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop, and the Greek myth-makers: offer brutal consequences to an otherwise civilized world. The wolf is perpetually at the door, ready to set teeth to naive flesh should you stray from your journey to (belated) adulthood. For example, Pagoda’s stabbings bookend Royal’s life in Tenenbaums—one in the exotic, unseen streets of Calcutta, the other thirty years later in a banal, domesticated New York, all brownstones and elegant lobbies. There’s a transference of responsibility back to Gene Hackman’s character, a responsibility seemingly left in that bazaar in India.

And so it goes throughout his films, as characters are seemingly baptized by the violence around them—a kind of catalyst to the change that needs to take hold in their lives lest they never emerge from their adolescence. After a gun battle in which his nemesis is critically wounded, Zissou lets go of his revenge fantasy and emerges into a more measured way of life. Mr. Fox domesticates and embraces the actual notion of family after enduring multiple attempts on his life, along with the near-annihilation he foisted upon his whole community with his actions. The children of Moonrise Kingdom sprint past the aborted adulthoods of their parents and teachers, as they’ve weathered lightning strikes, dead dogs, pierced ears, and the wars we wage as kids, coming out the other side enlightened by the harsh realities engendered by such violence.

Anderson’s films are not nearly as violent as your average blockbuster, or even other art house films—not by a mile. However, they utilize the violence they do have, whether on-screen or off, by juxtaposing it against the idyllic, misty-eyed nostalgia of their inhabitants. All those whimsical and yes, twee, sensibilities would be aesthetic masturbations of the worst kind if there wasn’t any weight to the world. Unlike his imitators, Wes Anderson’s films resonate deeply instead of simply drifting away into the sky, unexceptional and unremembered. The stories of our childhood showed us the violence of the world, and that the path to adulthood is often times savage and capricious; Anderson reminds us that the world is still feral, no matter how much we think we’ve tamed it. »

– Scot Olsen