Three wealthy, immature, self-medicating brothers meet on an extravagant train in India for a tightly coordinated journey of spiritual enlightenment in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. All three are brimming with narcissism and still feeling the weight of their father’s death a year prior. Francis (Owen Wilson) is the oldest and the tour manager, fresh off of a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. Peter (Adrien Brody), the middle brother, is caught in a marriage he’s not sure he wants, with a child on the way. Jack (Jason Schwartzman, who also shares a writing credit) is an aspiring writer reeling from a recent break up. I’ll mention here that all three give committed performances, and newcomer Adrien Brody is the best of the bunch.
This may simultaneously be Wes Anderson’s most difficult and most mature film to date. Although most, if not all, of his formalistic trappings are on display here, he seems to reel in the aloof, dismissive quirk a bit in favor of focusing in on, and fleshing out, his trio of leads. At first he pokes fun at the brothers’ privilege, (they treat their itinerated, laminated quest for spiritual enlightenment as a tourist exercise) but this detached whimsy, which sustained the entirety of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, doesn’t last long. Anderson gets down to business much quicker here (the brothers’ substance abuse is played for laughs, but is quickly undercut by a striking moment in which Adrien Brody stares into a mirror fiercely fighting back tears – this comes before the 10-minute mark). I love the way Anderson builds mood here. The perpetual presence of a level of quirk keeps things somber instead of dour. The entire film, and its characters, is haunted by the death of the father, and I could feel his presence (or lack thereof) every minute.
I’d like to briefly discuss India, which was certainly a big inspiration and plays a key role. Although the brothers, at least at first, treat it shallowly, Anderson and longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman present India with a real reverence. It never feels like a director’s travelogue (hello, Woody Allen). Sure, from the market to the countryside it’s all imbued with Anderson’s own magical, whimsical, painterly touch, but it never rings hollow. It’s a beautiful location for a beautiful film.
The Darjeeling Limited might be Wes Anderson’s least-funny work to date, but it also may be his most personal and, indeed, spiritual. His disregarding of “for-quirk-only” periphery characters is a welcome change, choosing instead to focus entirely on these initially pathetic, pitiable brother, and imbuing them with empathy and humanity. There’s a big, big heart beating here (the one worthy minor character – a stewardess named Rita – leaves a strong impression) but Anderson only lets it out in little, fleeting flashes as opposed to drawn out, grandiose melodrama. I can’t think of a better example of how much heart is here than the halfway mark, in which the brothers’ petty self-absorption retreats when they find three little boys in danger, and Anderson’s own meticulous, symmetrical, whimsical style retreats as well, replaced by emotionally charged handheld work. This may not be his snappiest, wittiest, or most memorable movie, but The Darjeeling Limited honestly moved me with its thought provoking ruminations on grief, and isn’t that more than enough?
★★★★ out of 5