Moonlight: personal, humanistic, and warm

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It’s easy to see why Moonlight is the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Everything just works as a complete package, with stellar acting, direction, and screenplay. Its humanistic story is memorable, emotionally complex, and subverts racial stereotypes.

Among such skill, it’s Moonlight‘s striking visuals that left the biggest impression on me. Though it has been months since my last viewing, I can recall certain shots as though I saw the film yesterday. With strong saturated colors and high contrast, Wong Kar-Wai is a clear influence. Yet interesting changes in angle, perspective, and a heavy reliance on handheld give this movie its own unique character. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead.)

Establishing perspective: shallow focus, camera angles

DP James Laxton shoots much of Moonlight with a very shallow depth of field. Admittedly this is a very en vogue look for modern films. It has practical advantages in low light situations; the wide open aperture that generates shallow focus also collects more light. And the bokeh (out of focus) around the focus point is often beautiful.

There are, however, select scenes that feel especially pointed in their focus:

Here we have a conversation between drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his partner on the street. As the two characters converse, the camera slowly spins around them in a long unbroken take. The depth of field is so shallow parts of Juan’s face shift in and out of focus. It’s the opening scene of the movie, set in direct sunlight. Other films may widen their depth to emphasize the character’s surroundings, but Moonlight remains steadfastly narrow in scope.

The pattern continues throughout the film. Miami provides a colorful backdrop, but the cameras pares down its focus to just a few characters. In most scenes it’s either Moonlight‘s protagonist, Chiron, or who he’s interacting with.

Many shots have characters looking directly into the camera. It’s effectively a first person perspective:

The narrow depth of field and first person shots sync perfectly with the film’s intimate, character-driven plot. Moonlight is foremost a character study, the journey of one black man growing up in Miami. We watch a handful of characters interact with and influence his life. It’s natural that Jenkins and Laxton have the audience “see” what Chiron sees.

The camera also makes striking use of low and high angles, further deepening the audience’s identification with Chiron’s journey. The first notable example occurs early in the film, where a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) runs through tall grass:

Echoing hints of Terrance Malick’s work, the camera is frenetic, handheld, and naturalistic. It gives a sense of Chiron’s carefree happiness before external events shape his future.

In a later scene, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim for himself in the sea:

It’s understandable why this shot is featured so prominently in the trailer and in many promotional materials. It’s both photogenic and highly symbolic of the father-son influence that shapes Chiron’s entire trajectory. Notably the camera shoots right in the water alongside our characters. It’s basically at the same height as Chiron, adding to the audience’s intimacy and sympathy.

Dreamlike character and bold emotion: color saturation and high contrast

As noted in this Indiewire feature, Moonlight has a bold, saturated color scheme and high contrast look. Jenkins and Laxton wanted to move away from the documentary-like coloring and contrast scheme commonplace for “social issue” films.

This was a risky decision. It could have counteracted “realism” and distanced the audience from the characters. Yet in practice, the vivid color heightens the film’s emotional palette and dreamlike state.

Blue is one of the most prominent colors:

Blue plays into some of Moonlight’s most emotionally impactful scenes: Chiron having his first sexual encounter with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome, top right). Our introduction to grown up Chiron in the third act (Trevante Rhodes, bottom left). A young Chiron on the beach alone, the final shot of the movie (bottom right). And as the Indiewire feature reveals, Moonlight’s colorist added blue to the film’s blacks, ensuring blue tones pop up throughout the film.

Blue pairs well with the film, given it’s a color strongly associated with masculinity, knowledge, and trust. These are all prominent themes in Moonlight.

Other colors pop up more sparingly but still register. For example, a strong pink emanates from the room of Chiron’s crack-addicted, negligent mother Paula (Naomie Harris):

In this scene, Paula screams at Chiron in anger, captured in ultra-slow motion. We associate pink with love and femininity, a natural pairing for a mother. Yet Paula’s actions here play against this. It’s a tug between two opposing emotions, heightening Chiron’s emotional conflict.

Green plays strongly in Chiron’s bathroom after he’s beaten up in a school fight:

Chiron tends to his wounds, icing his face in the sink and staring into the mirror. Green here gives the shot a sickly, discordant feel, foreshadowing violence about to play out. Like with Paula’s aforementioned scene, Jenkins and Laxton heighten emotions by shooting in slow motion.

No room for error

Moonlight‘s budget was less than $5 million and was shot in just twenty five days. DP Laxton served as camera operator on almost the entire picture. Given those constraints, Laxton’s work is especially impressive. He had little room for error, and still the film visually trumps those with ten times its budget. I suspect Moonlight‘s accolades will propel Laxton into the A-list of in-demand cinematographers. I can’t wait to see what he’s up to next.