starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston
screenplay by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman
directed by Wes Anderson
by Walter Chaw If there's a Wes Anderson cult, I guess you should sign me up. His latest, The Darjeeling Limited, represents to me a maturing artist grappling with the stagnation of the relationship between fathers and sons. This notion that the relationship's reconciliation can only be arrived at posthumously is devastating--not because it's bleak, but because more often than not it holds true. Accordingly, Anderson's picture only has the suggestion of a father (unlike the surrogate father of The Life Aquatic or the redeemable father of The Royal Tenenbaums) at its beginning and maybe a spectre of a father played in cameo by Bill Murray, chasing down the titular train in the film's already-emotional prologue. I've offered that my appreciation of Anderson's work in the past has necessitated multiple viewings (if I'd had a second look at The Royal Tenenbaums prior to composing my year-end list in 2001, it wouldn't have had much competition for the top spot), but found The Darjeeling Limited to be affecting from the start. Something to do with a familiarity with Anderson, perhaps, or with Anderson growing up from the precocious scamp of Rushmore into the ravaged visage of Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), the eldest of the three Whitman brothers, called to India after a year's estrangement on a quest for spiritual discovery in Satyajit Ray country. (Indeed, the film's score is cobbled together from snippets of Ray's music as well as a few choice cuts from The Kinks--the use of "This Time Tomorrow" from Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1 is nearly as exquisite as the use of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" late in the picture.) More probably, I connected instantly with The Darjeeling Limited, a film about mourning the death of a father, because I've been doing the same thing--imperfectly, badly--for almost exactly four years now.
Francis meets up with brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody) in their private, cramped, first-class train car, armed, as are each of the brothers, with a payload of tranquilizers and cigarettes. Francis lays out the itinerary for their trip along with a few ground rules about being open to the possibility of spiritual awakening--not telling them the particulars of why his face is bandaged or what he has in store for them at the end of the line. It's a road trip, arguably Anderson's first since his debut Bottle Rocket, and true to form the train they're on gets lost mid-journey. A character asks, reasonably, how a train can go astray, as trains are bound to tracks--and the asking of the question provides the answer: Although you're bound to destiny like a damsel on the rail, there's still the opportunity to lose yourself along the path. The Whitmans, it's discovered, have lost their father, and in the year since have lost track of one another and most likely themselves as well. There's the hope that self-discovery is hidden in an ancient land's holy places, setting the table for a pilgrimage story several degrees more poignant when their actual Mecca is revealed.
Anderson has up until now touched on spirituality only obliquely. Here, his disconnected players stop to pray at every altar passed along the way; the loss of a father initiates/necessitates this desperate casting-about for another. Towards the end, there's a flashback bookended with matching shots that laid me to waste, and in watching the picture a second time, I was stunned by how controlled and economical Anderson is with his images. The film isn't about the desire to be found, as lesser films might have it--rather, it's about growing comfortable with being lost. In its way, The Darjeeling Limited is all that needs be said about post-modernism: with the search for God finished, move into an acceptance of aloneness. A character at one point says, "We lost him, and we're never going to be okay, but it's the past now--and the past is over. Isn't it?" There's an understanding that life is Renoir's Indian river: it's never the same twice, and it's always the same. Anderson handles the shift from deadpan comedy to formalist pathos better than he ever has in the past--The Darjeeling Limited resembles a Takeshi Kitano masterpiece: instantly recognizable, intricate and artificial, and overwhelmingly human. It's a stunning companion piece to The Royal Tenenbaums (I imagined, more than once, that this is the procession and eulogy for that picture's patriarch), a distillation of Anderson's surprising sobriety. If you hear the music, you'll recognize that beneath Anderson's hipster veneer is the low keen of loss and wounds that never close. I'm loathe to declare it a better picture than The Royal Tenenbaums (which, with three years to go, remains one of the best pictures of the decade), yet I'm growing comfortable with the idea that if Anderson isn't the most individualistic, important American filmmaker on the scene, he's at least that to me. Originally published: October 19, 2007.