Wes Anderson’s movies are usually derided as dollhouse stories, fictional fairytale lands enclosed in boxes (or in this case his painter-like framing of films with cinematographer Robert Yeoman). It’s argued that these pretty, consciously arranged set-ups lend a certain plastic, detached-from-life quality to his work. Roger Ebert has gone so far as to review Anderson’s last few movies on some sort of “whimsy-ometer.” But all of these critiques gloss over the hidden layers in all of Anderson’s films. The odd redemption of Max Fischer is what drives his break though film, Rushmore, a film where all his trademark left-of-center humor comes from a melancholy that runs through every character. Do we forget about the pathos in The Royal Tenenbaums when Chaz says to his father, “it’s been a rough year, dad” or the supremely odd and somehow touching “Goodbye, Cody” Steve Zissou gives to his barely-rented three legged dog after he’s inadvertently returned to his sea pirate owners?
Yes, sentences like that last one are what drive the “c’mon, how can we take this seriously?” argument, but it’s also the same sensibility that makes the emotional points in his films so earned. That juxtaposition is what makes the suicide scene in The Royal Tenenbaums so strategically powerful. The naked reality of the suicide attempt is so pointed set against a movie where a dog survives a plane crash in his little doggie port-a-crate, framed just in front of the downed plane. A series of perfect, neat images to set you up. The blade rips through the skin and blood fills the sink to remind you of how high the stakes are, regardless of how many Sharpie-dotted mice run about this fictional house in this fictional New York.
With The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson answers the calls of his critics with what is easily his most deep, profound, and personal film yet. But somewhere along the line, this depth got taken as some sort of gag, his ironic twist on real-life emotions and situations. While he tries to mine deep into his characters, their insecurities, their hidden feelings, it’s unfortunately covered up by his intricate, off-beat style. Essentially, we all stopped trying to figure out what the painting is like because we’re too preoccupied looking at the frame, the intricate details surrounding the image, the way it is made. They’re too busy looking at it to try to try and understand. The gift and the curse of a highly visual filmmaker, it seems.
The Darjeeling Limited plunges to depths he barely touched in The Royal Tenenbaums, the film that most people consider to be his masterpiece. (Besides the fact that it’s the first film they ever saw of his and have since gotten tired of his style; they now hearken back to “The Good Ol’ Flick” they enjoyed in times of yore.) This film not only shows is improvement as a filmmaker, both in visual and storytelling form. Darjeeling succeeds in one of the greatest tenets instilled in me in film school: it shows, and it doesn’t tell. And man, does it show a lot.
The story seems rather simple with all the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson plot. Three brothers–all rich, all childish–meet in India to try and rediscover themselves after spending a year apart following the crushing death of their father. Rudderless, they attempt to run through a series of paint-by-numbers spiritual experiences to try and find some meaning that will eventually climax with a meeting with their estranged mother, the one who missed their dear father’s funeral, something the younger brothers are not aware of before they set out towards lower Asia. Along the way, goofy situations occur, and their upper class American sensibilities and stunted growth get the boys into great comedic set-ups in this faraway land. The color palate is sorta wacky and the shots are beautiful and picturesque. But what sets this film apart from his repertoire–and other films being pushed through your multiplexes–is how much stays with the characters and how it lingers over the entirety of the picture.
The opening short, Hotel Chevalier, sets the tone for the feature (shot a full year later) and gives a fairly straightforward look at how the characters work. Jack, the youngest of the brothers (played with a quiet subtlety by Jason Schwartzman), treats the surrounding world like his playground. The rules set are his. He tries to play the part of lonely wanderer abroad, but he can’t help ordering the incredibly American grilled cheese in French. This is the idea of what a rebel rich kid on the run does. He’s acting the part in his own little movie. Notice how he sets the soundtrack when his former flame (played by Natalie Portman) is about to enter the scene (literally and otherwise), a recurring motif that is peppered throughout the feature whenever music is traditionally called for.
He’s a little man who thinks he’s running his existence a possible outcome after his father was unexpectedly ripped away from him by the cosmos. Further, the fact that he looks like Paul McCartney on the Abbey Road cover is a really inspired choice. This is where Jack thinks he is in life; he’s just crossing the road barefoot, his band broken up. (I guess this makes Bill Murray’s character in the open, widely considered to be an embodiment of their father, John Lennon.) In some way, Jack embodies the criticism leveled toward Anderson; gliding through life in his perfect playhouses, skirting over reality all the while.
The opening short also gives us a taste at how we’re supposed to register the hits these characters take. Notice how Schwartzman’s face drops off a cliff the moment he hears Natalie Portman’s voice (funny, since everyone else in the audience turned to their friend and quietly squealed “is that Natalie Portman?!”). God only knows who this girl is, but everything we need to know about what she means to him is written all over his face. It’s like he’s seen a ghost and it farted on him. Just pure disgust and fear. And with all of that, look how effortlessly he gives in to her charms. I wonder if that disgust is really for himself and what he’s about to do.
When he and his former lover spar, they’re in sparing sentences. They jab, they hit their mark, they move forward. Each small snippet of dialogue reveals just enough. The childish discussion of how long he’s been there begins with a firm, “don’t know,” when everyone in the room knows how long it’s been. Eventually it gives way to a very real and frank bout of on screen sex. It isn’t sexy, it just is. Raw and visceral, we realize there are bruises on her body, quickly pointed out by Jack. She doesn’t answer. She just keeps going forward, until…
Her: Whatever happens in the end, I don’t want to lose you as my friend.
Him: I promise, I’ll never be your friend. No matter what. Ever.
Her: If we fuck, I’m going to feel like shit tomorrow.
Him: That’s ok with me.
Then they pause. Clearing this dead space, she takes her shirt off and says that she loves him and “never hurt him on purpose.” He responds with, “I don’t care,” which sounds more like a wish than a statement of fact. After that exchange, they stop, as he now relents, suddenly caring about how she’ll feel like shit the next day. He offers instead a view from his boutique French balcony (although there is no mandated view of the Eiffel Tower, following the aforementioned Ebert’s guidelines for filmic apartments in Paris). And, sure, maybe that puts her back in the mood (as she touches his neck and guides him inside) but that’s besides the point by now. Everything we need to know about this man and where he is in life has been shown to us in less than fifteen minutes.
This idea of concealed pain is literally thrown all over the face of Owen Wilson. His character, Francis, is the eldest brother, the alpha dog, the one who shoehorns in the earnestly asked question “did I sort of raise us…kind of?” into the middle of a conversation. As we learn, he’s also the most like his mother: taking the reigns so hard that the subjects have no choice at all but to submit. The boys, stuck on their leashes, have learned it’s better to just be silent and go with it than resist the inevitable (notice how Peter’s pleas to Francis are nullified when Francis guesses that Peter wanted cookies).
But more importantly he’s someone who’s carrying huge, gaping wounds and decides it’s better to look ridiculous than to actually face the reality of the situation. As long as he’s bandaged, as long as it’s covered, it doesn’t exist. During Francis’s travels, he slowly unravels until he’s down to just his mangled face. He, with his brothers there, faces the reality and moves on, all the stronger for it. This honestly with himself and (quite literally) on himself is akin to wearing his Sunday’s Best when going to confront his mother.
But the main story we are to follow is that of the middle child, Peter (portrayed by Adrien Brody in a total “oh yeah, he’s great!” performance). The middle children are always the hardest ones hit, aren’t they? Peter cannot let go of his father’s image, continually wears his glasses to try and at least see the world through his image, as the prescriptions are still in, and no, they don’t miraculously have the same conveniently awful eyesight. Peter even goes so far and boast to his brothers that their father said he was the favorite, a boisterous, line-crossing bit of out and out hurtful lying that attacks exactly where he wants it to. Peter understands the caverns that are now unfilled in his soul, and he knows that they exist within his brothers as well. Only family can understand each other just enough to really bring the big hurt.
The struggle he brings while leaping on to the Darjeeling Limited train (with The Kinks’s “This Time Tomorrow” poignantly playing in the background) is his impending fatherhood. As the boys all try and heal themselves over the death of their father, Peter has to realize that he is taking up this very same role. His problems beget a more direct link to his father’s death than his brothers can relate to. By having a child, and in turn by becoming a father, he’s opening up his child to the same kind of hurt he now feels if he dies unexpectedly. Peter knows first hand how devastating losing a father could be; hell, he’s still in the process of mourning it. And now he introduces something to the world that could suffer the same fate? He doesn’t want to talk about his new baby because in his mind his wife is giving birth to a ticking time bomb. And to top it off, all of this angst is predicated on his own mortality. Double-whammy. (When he read his brothers recounting of trying to retrieve his dad's car the day of his funeral, how he can't mourn with everyone else. He cries alone in the bathroom, away from them and their comfort.)
So the boys travel around trying to “find themselves” in the most shallow of ways. The itinerary (brought to you–lamenated–by Francis’ Alopecia-plagued assistant Brendan) tries to hit all the spiritual-hot spots while keeping an air of “unpredictability” by never having the guys meet Brendan. It’s the kind of smoke-and-mirrors shenanigans held true by children and setting it against the background of an imagined India leaves the boys in a world of endless possibilities…if they’d open themselves up to go off the painstakingly timed journey. The entire idea, and it being set on a train, is its own encapsulated Wes Anderson film. They live in this moving fantasy world, keeping the actual existence outside, viable only as a picture inside a window frame.
They treat the markets in India as if they were mid-western tourists in Times Square: they think they’re getting a real good idea of what New York is like when they’re just scratching the surface. And in the most American way possible, they’re under the misguided idea that simply being in a spiritual land and going to a few spiritual places will beget a spiritual journey. An A+B=C way to enlightenment. If they follow all the instructions, if they wear the vibrating ab-belt just right, then they’ll get the results they need without putting in any of the work. In their first temple, Peter signs off his prayer with the sign of the cross, as if all the tiny idols placed in front of him are the Indian versions of the twelve disciples. All of their discoveries are limited to how far they’re willing to go to make it happen. As long as they’re locked in that train, they can never delve into something real in their surroundings or, most importantly, in themselves.
That all changes once they’re kicked off the train following a series of great, light comedy bits. One of the most frank and honest lines comes from the mouth of Jonathan Schwartzman, and is prominently featured in the film’s trailers. He asks the biting question if the three of them weren’t brothers, would they actually be friends? There’s no better time for self-analyzation than in the middle of the desert in Who The Fuck Knows, India. But it’s in these conditions, when they’re set outside their plastic, hermetically sealed world (reinforced by their combined sense of loss and detachment) it’s when they truly embark on a spiritual journey, christened by yet another tragedy.
Our heroes, resigned to getting nothing out of this trip but even more disillusionment, start to head towards the nearest airport to get the hell out of the Indian “Dodge.” On their way, walking about with their Louis Vitton bags and a laminating machine (the cornerstone of their spiritual journey) the camera does a quick zoom in on Owen Wilson’s busted up face, then to a shot of three young Indian boys crossing a river. Wilson utters, “look at these assholes,” a plain-stated mocking comment that his character, we’ve grown to learn, is wont to do. Jack blank-stares through his delivery of, “that’s going to tip over.” As the raft tips, Peter yells “GO!” and the boys jump into action in an attempt to save their young Indian doppelgangers. They dive in, finally taking action, and doing a hell of a job…until the rope snaps, flipping the raft, Peter, and the boy he is to save, sending them hurdling down the river.
The usually steady and assured camera so affiliated with Anderson’s work goes out the window. Suddenly, life has infiltrated this universe in a way that breaks the stillness. As that boat flips over, something invades his frame that has never really before. We follow along with Jack, running through trees and shrubbery, as he yells, “HE’S ALL BLOODY!” Weren’t we just laughing along with the follies of arrested development cases and their failure to understand reality? We’re not just thrust into this situation, but stunk in it, just like our protagonists. When Jack gets to the end of his run, there is a dead child–bloodied, limp–in Peter’s arms. Staring at nothing in particular, Peter states, “I didn’t save mine.” Then he asks the boys’ friends what his name is, as if they share a common language.
This crossroads finds Anderson maturing as a filmmaker just as as his characters discover what they’ve been searching for all along. Fittingly, it fits around the ritual of death and its refusal to play by the rules of common decency. After sixty-odd minutes of seeing sons mourning the death of a father, we’re shown the evolutionarily backward account of a father grieving for his son. It’s not supposed to be this way. The father is to get old, pass on, leaving a life to his child. It’s the greatest gift he can give, the most essential. So as we watch the boys grapple with their loss, the opposite is shown to us. Even though the boys (and, in turn, the audience) does not understand what is being said, we can see the hurt, the pain stretched across these Indian strangers.
In this exercise, we learn that no matter which side the coin flip lands in death, there is always pain. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t; loss creates hurt. You can’t shield anyone from it. In some way, Peter’s experience of losing a life gave him all the more reason to replace it with another one. He’s having a child to make up for the one he lost in his arms, the one he carried like a child to his village as his friend held his dead, outstretched hand. In the same cycle, he will now take his father’s stead, another cog in a long line of fathers and sons, life and death. It’s just the way things go.
Of course, this lost on the Whitmans. As they sit in the back of an over sized van, heading (we can only assume) to the nearest airport, someone notices how out of place they are in these surroundings. The native looking Indian–in wonderful English–asks what they’re doing there. Francis mentions how they were trying to go on a spiritual journey but it didn’t really work out, completely not understanding the magnitude of what just happened in his, and their, lives. At least they aren’t conscious of it.
We’re able to see just how far they’ve come (or rather how badly they’ve regressed into children without their parents) when we flash back to the filmed memory that spawned “Luftwaffe Automotive,” Jack’s short story featured early on in the film. Notice how measured and rational Francis and Jack are both in the limo and on the onset of Peter’s attempt to get the car. When they find their father’s last piece of luggage, all his baggage finally builds up, cracking reality for his sons. In a flash, Peter is trying to hotwire the old car, Jack is putting on his dead father’s white shirt, and Francis is informed that their mother won’t attend their father’s funeral, thus driving him to help push start the car and tell off a truck driver who gets in their way. It’s all down hill from here, as we already know.
We pick up with our boys in yet another taxi on their way to the airport. As we follow them in, we could see them almost gaining the courage to confront their demons. Going around the circle, Francis calls Brendan to apologize, Jack finds out that his ex is going to meet up with him in Italy (and is unsure what to do about it), and Peter not only finds out the sex of his new baby (boy), but he’s excited that the vest he picked up for whatever sex the baby would be is more masculine than not. Sure, things are a bit rocky with his wife as he just informed her that he’s half a world away, but at least he had the courage to face it. The same kind of courage Jack needs to stop this vicious cycle with his former lover. The same kind of courage Francis needs to come to grips with his suicide attempt and the damages (“I guess I still have some healing to do,” he says after tearing off his bandages, brothers, astonished, at his side). And after finally getting what they were looking for in India, why wouldn’t they keep on rolling and confront their mother?
Of course, their mother (in a devastating turn from Anjelica Huston) is the key to understanding why the boys are who they are. She is a woman running from her issues, taking her all the way to a missionary ground in India, regardless of her actual strength of faith (and judging by her children’s ideas on spirituality, it’s not a stretch to doubt its validity, is it?). Her ability to lie with a straight face is both awe-inspiring and shocking. As she notices a pot made by her son’s wife, she says it’s an awful little thing. In the same breath, she’s told who made the pot and changes her tune to say how much she adores it; pass on a compliment to the creator for her. Not missing a beat, Peter asks if she’d like one. She warmly coos, “of course I do” and kisses her boys on the cheek before leaving them to sleep. No one begs to mention what just transpired.
When they finally confront her, it comes in a wonderfully backhanded way. Peter mentions how he wants to inform his mother that she is an impending grandmother. At first glance, it seems like a biting move to show how little she knows about him, but it immediately gives way to the question at the heart of the issue: why didn’t you come to Dad’s funeral? (Inherent subquestion: why didn’t you comfort us at Dad’s funeral?) Her cold, simple answer, “because I didn’t want to.” When she reveals that she’s in the mountains because “these people need me,” Jack challenges her, asking why she can’t be around for her own children. Flippant, her answer is that she doesn’t hold the answers to these questions, copping out in a very large, profound manner. Then she shifts the conversation to forgetting about it, moving forward, in that wonderful Don Draper way; the shark that stops moving forward dies.
But Francis puts an end to all of that. He hasn’t moved on. His brothers haven’t moved on. They can’t just glance over the death like their mother is all too easily accomplishing. She reprises the idea that she didn’t want them to come here, and, in reality, asking them to not intrude with her secluded life. When the lights come back on, they surround her fully. Trapped, she gives in to talking “without words,” now having the film rely on all conversation purely through the expressions on the actors faces and the Rolling Stones playing over a moving montage. We see all of our characters, stuck on that train we call life, endlessly moving forward when they’re not sure what exactly is going on in their own cars, let alone having the time to figure out what’s rushing by them outside their closed perspectives. We end on the man eating tiger, terrifying, just waiting for us in the back of the train, ready to pounce whenever it feels compelled to escape its car and come for you.
The next day, we notice how little has changed for the Whitman family. After traveling thousands of miles, getting kicked off a train, failing to go on a verified and approved Spiritual Journey, witnessing the death of a young boy, and finally making it to meet their mother in the mountains of India…she abandons them. Again. There is some unpleasantness in the room, mostly emanating from Peter, but they soon get over it and move on to the fact that she left them breakfast. She might be chickenshit, but she did leave quite a spread.
Francis decides this is as apt a time as any to actually try and do the spiritual ceremony he’s been working so hard at trying to accomplish all this time. Instead of following the rules as ordered, he’s finally come to grips with the idea that there is no set way to do things. As long as we all get to the end, there is no need to look back at the path you took in order to get to the destination. What matters was that they faced a fear, together, one that they could not even properly discuss in each others company (remember how Peter read Jack’s short story in the bathroom, crying alone). They bottled up all of their problems and somehow found catharsis because they stopped looking to their parents for strength and turned to each other.
They make their way back onto another train and, as they prepare to mount this new one, finally shed their fathers baggage, a brilliant and obvious pun-tastic gag that is so obvious you almost don’t realize it has been rubbed in your face all movie long. They all enter the train together in the same way Peter did, alone, to start this journey. Together, locked in slow motion, they once again transition to the world of the train, scored to yet another awesome Kinks song. As they re-enter this vibrant red train (a stark difference to the cold blue of the Darjeeling Limited), they are no longer novices on the tracks. Instead, they’re self-assured pros, well acquainted with what they need to go through this trip. Now they trust themselves and, more importantly, each other, signified by their handing over of passports to Francis. But let’s not think they’ve suddenly jumped to some other plain of existence; they still need a drink and smoke. And they’ll take this trip, a bit wiser on this go-around than the last.