by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 69%
PLOT: A year after their father’s funeral, three brothers travel across India by train in an attempt to bond with each other.
In one of the bonus features on the Criterion Blu-ray for Wes Anderson’s charming The Darjeeling Limited, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey because (I’m paraphrasing here) it is the perfect distillation of the director’s method, mood, and style. I would reserve that distinction for either The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, myself, but The Darjeeling Limited certainly does capture everything that is typical of a Wes Anderson film: charm, whimsy, troubled souls, a quest of some kind, attention-grabbing camera moves, frequent slo-mo (but not too much), cameos, light and dark material jockeying for position, and a denouement that may signal the end of the film but certainly not the final arc of the main characters.
Meet the Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). A year ago, their father died, and for the first time since that day, they’re about to meet each other and speak to other on board The Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them across India on a spiritual journey. Francis, the eldest, is the eager organizer of this little pilgrimage, providing everyone with laminated daily itineraries that are produced by Brendan, his personal assistant who is also travelling in a separate train car. Francis will spend much of the film wearing bandages on his head and face that make him look as if he lost a fight with a honey badger. What caused these injuries is not for me to say.
The ostensible reason for this journey is spiritual awakening and reconnecting with each other. “I want us to become brothers again like we used to be and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other,” says Francis. Peter and Jack are skeptical and not exactly psyched for this little trip, each for their own reasons. Peter has a wife back home, 7-and-a-half months pregnant, who has no idea he’s in India. Jack, a writer, has broken up with his girlfriend, but he obsessively checks her voicemails remotely because he still has the code to her answering machine. (Hey, this was made in 2007 when you could still do that.) He has his own return ticket in case he wants to leave the trip early. Of course, he’ll find that difficult without his passport, which Francis has confiscated. “For safety,” he argues. Yeah, right.
There is an ulterior motive for the trip, having to do with who did and didn’t attend their father’s funeral, but ultimately the ins and outs of the characters, while engaging, kind of take a back seat to the trademark Wes Anderson visual style. This is not a bad thing. I am not a fan of Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, because I felt it was all posturing with no meat to the story. However, with each successive film of his, I become more and more endeared and captivated with his trademarks, especially when he uses it to tell stories that I would never have thought would “mesh” with his style.
For example, near the halfway point of the film, an extremely unexpected crisis occurs. Because the movie has been happy and bouncy and witty up to now, it comes completely out of left field. But remarkably, in the middle of this action, Anderson’s camera remains as “Anderson-esque” as ever, still performing quick pans and push-ins and keeping me involved in the story. This crisis might have felt contrived in another film, a plot device to inject some needed drama into the story. Not here. Anderson’s storytelling methods made the event feel as random as anything life might throw at us on any given day: the death of a parent, the birth of a child, a snake getting loose in your train compartment, etcetera.
With one or two obvious exceptions (I think), the entire film was shot in India. The trusty IMDb trivia page informs me the train scenes themselves were filmed inside a moving train travelling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The beautiful Indian locations are a major feature of the film. They visit temples, marketplaces, a monastery, and hilltops overlooking vast Indian vistas.
And all the while, Francis, Jack, and Peter struggle to come to grips with their differences and their brotherhood. “I wonder if the three of us would’ve been friends in real life,” Jack asks at one point. Great question. Given what we see in the film, it’s sometimes hard to believe they ever loved each other. At one point, Francis and Peter get into a wrestling match and Jack has to step in: “I love you, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!” That’s real love right there. Right? I guess…
I’ve heard that if you’re ever not sure what a book or a movie is about, just look at how a character has changed at the end of the story as opposed to what they were like at the beginning. In The Darjeeling Limited, that’s not so easy to pin down. I can see that Francis has grown a bit (he eventually relinquishes his brothers’ passports). But when it comes to Jack and Peter…I’m not sure much has changed with them at all. Does that make this Francis’s movie through and through?
I’m not sure it matters. I mean, yes, the story is fun to watch, and I wanted to see where this journey would lead each one of the three brothers. But for me, the element, or factor, or whatever, that makes The Darjeeling Limited so fun to watch is the directorial style of Wes Anderson. In this film, as in so many of his films, it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.
[Trivia note: the Criterion Blu-ray also contains a short film called Hotel Chevalier which is intended as a kind of prologue to The Darjeeling Limited. Don’t make the mistake I did…if you get the Blu-ray, be sure to watch the movie with the prologue. Don’t wait until after watching the main feature.]
[Super-nerdy trivia note: every musical cue in the film was cribbed from the early films of James Ivory and Satyajit Ray; Wes Anderson wanted to pay tribute to the filmmakers who influenced so much of his style.]