Sadly, Moonrise is not a spiritual successor to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, although, both films are of the same vein, melodramas of the highest quality mired in dark, oppressive imagery. Yet while Sunrise is able to be light and joyous at times, Moonrise is constantly immersed in the darkness with only the smallest glimmer of hope.
A lifetime of ridicule, prejudice and fear stems from the conviction and hanging of his father leaves Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) with little hope. In his small town community, everyone knows his troubled past and he sees every unsure glance, light jab and strong gaze as a condemnation of his inescapable past. But even amid his frothing hate for his father, he’s able to find love with Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), the local school teacher.
And yet, Danny is not a completely misunderstood by the community. While he’s often vulnerable, he’s constantly prone to harsh words, forceful actions and aggressive behavior. The first few scenes of the film portray some of his most abhorrent behavior, culminating in a horrible accident. By the end of all that, he’s one of the most despicable and ill-behaved characters one could conceive without crafting a maniacal villain.
Yet it’s Dane Clark’s performance, alongside Charles F. Haas’ screenplay which crafts Danny into a complex and ultimately sympathetic character. He’s been defined by his past as it’s forever altered the path of his life for what he sees as the worst. The bullying starts on the school playground and still hasn’t stopped as he’s still mocked by his peers and cannot get a job in town.
Does that excuse his behavior? No. But it helps the audience understand the psychology of this character, see the tension between the tragic and the terror that mingles inside of his very soul. It’s the most personal of stories, speaking to the legacy of one man’s birth into bloodshed, a legacy of the whole human race.
Danny’s psychosis is manifested in the fantastic noir visuals. Oblique lighting, deep shadows and a constant mood of darkness permeate the frames of Moonrise. As much as Borzage is a director seeped in realism, here is the film that delves into the realty of perception, not so much what is visually seen but a visual manifestation of Danny’s worldview.
That being said, the realism of Borzage’s film is still heavily at work throughout Moonrise. Sequence after sequence consists of long tracking shots that create a visual persistence which draws the audience into the moment, whether it be the deep weight of the bog or the grace of a dance. In many ways, Borzage feels as if he’s drawing from techniques from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Moonrise is the best kind of character study, one that tries to understand someone most would avoid. This ranks among one of the most beneficial things an audience can get out of a film: experiencing and understanding someone else. By taking on their pain, problems and worries for a while, one begins to understand instead of fear, sympathize instead of scorn and love instead of hate.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing