We haven’t located us yet.
— Brendon (Wallace Wolodarsky)
I’m sorry you lost your father.
— Patricia (Anjelica Huston)
Anjelica Huston appears late in The Darjeeling Limited. As Patricia, mother of three young men traveling across India, she’s simultaneously poignant and elusive, strange and stanch. And while she’s only on screen for a few moments — and frustrates the hell out of her sons — she provides the most moving experience in this odd, self-indulgent film about oddness and self-indulgence.
Seated on a monastery floor in remote India, Patricia is now a nun, having abandoned her family in the States for reasons left unexplained. The boys have been monumentally affected, of course, meaning that they are anxious about abandonment, commitment, sex, women, fatherhood, death, and life. As the camera pans around a circle they little family group has formed, it pauses ever so briefly on each face: Patricia’s eyes are dark and wet, filled to the brim, it seems, with pain, joy, and unbearable wisdom. Huston’s face fills the frame, the image quite literally breathtaking. For an instant, the movie seems brilliant. Then the camera passes over Patricia, and the instant is over.
Patricia serves multiple purposes in The Darjeeling Limited, not least being the grail her children seek, a seeming answer to their many questions, essential and existential. Much of the film, which is by turns smug and beguiling, concerns their journey across India and into their own memories. They travel by train, bus, and foot, along the way providing the sort of chatty, self-examining, circular business that characterizes Wes Anderson’s films (he co-wrote this one with Jason Schwartzman and Schwartzman’s cousin Roman Coppola).
The journey begins with death, as the brothers are initially distracted by remembering their recently dead dad, played by Bill Murray in a couple of minutes at film’s start, rushing for a train that may or may not be inside one of his son’s minds. And it ends, vaguely, with a traditional notion of reunion.
The train (which ride takes up the first half of the film) is broadly metaphorical as well as literal, a means to transport the brothers across a vast, “exotic” land where they might discover themselves and bond with each other. This mission and itinerary are set by fussy Francis (Owen Wilson), who shows up bandaged, bruised, and bloodied, the result, he says, of an accident (later revealed to have been a suicide attempt). “The first thing I thought when I woke up,” he tells Jack (Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody), “was I wish Peter and Jack were here.” As he remembers his near-death, the camera pushes in, very slowly, eventually losing sight of the crowded dining car where they sit, focusing on his tragic, weird face (Wilson’s wondrously crooked nose bringing varieties of potential meaning to Francis’ account as does, of course, the recent tabloidization of the actor’s own suicide attempt).
Francis’ loss of control has panicked him, and so he spends much of the film practicing a particular control-freakiness — this indicated by the laminated instructions he provides his brothers each morning (via a nerdish lackey named Brendan [Wallace Wolodarsky]), as well as his insistence that he hang onto all their passports. Jack and Peter more or less go along, more because they want to avoid direct confrontation and soothe Francis’ fierce nervousness than because they want to go on this journey. Each brother is allotted a mightily symbolic quirk: Peter wears their father’s large and face-reshaping sunglasses (though the prescription warps his vision; Jack misses his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), and calls to listen to her answering machine repeatedly from India, seeking information on her life without him (the 13-minute version of their relationship, titled Hotel Chevalier, is absent in Darjeeling, but available on iTunes).
Seeking some sort of solace, Jack has bathroom sex with the stunning stewardess on their train, Rita (Amara Karan). But he’s unable to sustain anything resembling honesty or compassion. “What is wrong with you?” Rita asks as the brothers are at last kicked off their train. He has no answer, but his frustration is less profound than banal. He’s a bright, sad young man without direction and with the requisite baggage: he resents and yearns for his mother, misses his father (whose conventional, out-of-date businessman’s attire suggests he’s in a time warp, in life and death and his kids’ unreliable memories). For all his foibles, though, Jack is seeking redemption and faith, and so becomes, like his brothers in their different ways, a standard issue American tourist, exploiting a non-Western landscape and its residents. It’s hard to feel sorry for him.
Then again, you might expect a complicated relationship with your supposed points of identification in a Wes Anderson movie. The brothers’ solipsistic and repetitive contests are annoying, but they’re also so stylized and arch that you can’t say you aren’t warned. What’s most intriguing is also what’s most predictable about Darjeeling: it revisits the filmmaker’s usual concerns with domestic tribulations, as well as his aesthetic signatures (episodic structure, cryptic and self-conscious dialogue, colorfully antic compositions). That these familiar elements are here set against a backdrop — “India” — so habitually deployed as a site of self-discovery and foreignness in the Western imagination, is tiresome.
This especially given the particular plot twist that afflicts the brothers once they’re off the train, and despite the fleeting appearance of Irfan Khan as a remarkably generous local father (paternal symbology abounds). And this especially and despite Patricia. When the boys locate her, they are thrilled and apprehensive, pursuing her even when she tells them not to come, to leave her unfound, a fading memory they might use as they like. But come they do, insisting on the primacy of their needs and their journeys. Because they can’t know what she represents or how she shapes them, they don’t see the shot that you see, that haunting, astonishing image of her smeary teary eyes. They don’t see her loss and desire, don’t comprehend her story. They have their own, as sons must.