THE DARJEELING LIMITED (dir. Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels—episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect—until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across.
The Whitman Brothers have not seen each other since their wealthy father’s funeral one year ago. Hoping to bring them back together as a family, oldest sibling Francis (Owen Wilson) books a month long train trip across India. While the problem prone Peter (Adrien Brody) relishes the idea (he’s escaping from pressing commitments on the home front), writer/lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) just wants to get to Italy to reconnect with his demanding girlfriend. Once all three hop on the title express, their dad’s special made Louis Vitton baggage in tow, they find themselves immersed in several levels of intrigue. Some of it is personal (rivalries, onboard romance, personal problems) while others involve the spiritual, the cultural, and the karmic. In fact, it is clear that all three Whitmans could use some significant healing. Each carries their own steamer trunk full of unanswered questions and unresolved expectations. Maybe reconnecting with their mother, who left the brood to seek solace in a far off nunnery, will sooth their ongoing struggles?
Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.
Beginning with a short film backstory (the ITunes treat Hotel Chevalier, now attached to all theatrical prints) which provides insight into Jack’s plight, and ending on one of those cinematic notes that continue to resonate long after the movie is over, The Darjeeling Limited is not a complicated movie. It’s not out to use intricate character details and dense sibling rivalries and conflicts to create its meaning. Instead, Anderson embraces the road movie contrivance—characterization reflected in the reaction his players have to various individuals they meet along the way—to broaden the span of his implications. This results in a film that feels wistful and feathery at first, only to trick us halfway through into becoming part of the brothers’ inner journey. By the end, we understand the pain felt by Francis, the disconnect experienced by Peter, and Jack’s longing to simply get lost.
This is a film of faces, and Anderson outdoes himself here, projecting all of his actors in the best possible cinematic light. Wilson, forced to wear a ridiculous set of bandages throughout most of the movie, is the personification of theater’s bifurcated dramatics. When he’s donning his medical mask, he’s a clever comic contrivance. But the moment he removes the gauze, giving us a horrifying glimpse at what lies beneath, it’s so tragic as to take one’s breath away. While he plays the mensch, Francis is the foundation of his family—and this entire film. Peter, played expertly by Brody, is like Narcissis fixated on his outward appearance to others. Every action he takes, every emotion he expresses, seems purposefully offered to make him and his overreaching angst feel appreciated. Longtime Anderson accomplice Schwartzman, on the other hand, is instinct inferred. He sits back and lets the others mull the meaning of things, functioning on impulse and his sense of superiority when the muse strikes.
Together, they’re like the Three Stooges on muscle relaxers, irony substituting for eye pokes and face slaps. While the vignette-oriented approach of the storytelling might turn some off, it really is necessary if Darjeeling is to achieve its aims. It’s not just an exterior travelogue. In fact, we see very little of India proper. Instead, it’s all controlled closed sets and vast open spaces. What Anderson wants to show us is that life is made up of tiny events, each one connecting to the other to form a pyramid of potential. Sometimes, the result is clarity. In other instances, it’s hurt. And then there are those unconscionably rare scenarios where you achieve balance—the pain finds its place and the closure brings peace. It’s what we hope the Whitman boys can achieve. Even when faced with temptation and tragedy, they tend to come off as spoiled brats. Yet through the course of the film, we actually watch them grow. They shed layer after layer of pent up animosity, and suddenly start acting like brothers again.
Naturally, Anderson saves the best for last. For Francis, finding their mother stands as a personal holy grail. It may explain his self-destructive streak (which may or may not have lead to his injuries). As the Earth mother matron with a seemingly selfish view of charity, Angelica Houston owns the screen. Wrinkles showing and hair cropped and graying, she’s like Mother Teresa’s oversexed twin. Her story is shrouded in shadows and hints, yet her actions belie everything we eventually learn. Her lack of altruism, especially when it comes to the boys she bore, becomes one of Darjeeling’s best moments. Even as the ending suggests a newfound bond and a freedom from the past, there are unanswered questions in abundance. For anyone wondering how this director constantly gets cast alongside those who play in prose, such open ended narrative dynamics illustrate the point perfectly. Anderson wants his audiences to absorb and then reflect on what they’ve seen. In many ways, his movies are like interactive journeys into human nature.
While Hotel Chevalier is stilted and purposefully static (and very necessary to our understanding of what will come next), The Darjeeling Limited is a classic curry covered confection. It seems superficially sublime, only to underscore its surface with deep, philosophical power. It’s about never wanting to grow up, and discovering that responsibility ain’t so bad. It’s like listening to a beautiful song and then realizing the lyrics describe a particularly disturbing issue. Anderson may be continuously labeled as strange and unconventional, but there is something most critics can’t deny. He is a master of the medium he is so frequently called out over, and The Darjeeling Limited is both a wonderful rebuttal, and recognizable explanation, for such fractured feelings.