Love him or hate him, Wes Anderson has made his mark on the movies. What started as indie quirk with Bottle Rocket blossomed into a mature and cinematic vision with The Royal Tenenbaums. Since the release of that film, Anderson has perfected his style, to the point where his methods have become identifiable as distinctly Anderson's. Flicks like Napoleon Dynamite are recognizable as (much lesser) imitations of Anderson's technique, but there's nothing like the original. Still, as stylistically sumptuous as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was, many people found it to be emotionally disconnected. While I don't share that view, it seems the criticisms made an impact on Anderson, as his latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, seems to have a renewed focus on substance.
Meet the Brothers Whitman. There's the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), recently out of an auto accident. He is determined to salvage his broken relationships with his younger brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). His idea is to take the three on a spiritual journey through India, via The Darjeeling Limited train. The ultimate goal, although he hasn't told his brothers, is to find their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston), last seen at an isolated convent. But each of the other brothers has their own burdens to bear, and none of them particularly like each other, blood bonds or not.
The Darjeeling Limited finds Anderson once again going to the well of the tortured, damaged, in denial protagonist. Except now, he's got three of them. And while it's obvious that The Darjeeling Limited is telling yet another version of the same story we saw in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, it's still a satisfying tale. Owen Wilson's plight is eerily mirrored by his real life suicide attempt, giving his character an extra level of pathos beyond what is written. His performance is low-key and humorous.
Jason Schwartzman has come a long way since the man-boy in Rushmore. His performance as Jack is more mature and introspective than I've ever seen him give. It also helps that he co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson and cousin Roman Coppola. The real treat of the cast is Adrien Brody, who is by turns nervous, angry, and thoughtful. He gives Peter an interior life that is both rich and hazardous. He is a pleasure to watch on screen, especially in the scenes where the group is ejected from the train.
And then there's The Darjeeling Limited itself. The train is more than just a transport. It becomes a character on its own, changing with the mood and temperament of the Whitmans. India, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, transforming the brothers. They go through a journey, albeit unwillingly, and completely at odds with their original intentions. It's par for the course with Anderson, but that doesn't make it any less intriguing. What is different, however, is his style. It's no longer quite as practiced. Anderson is willing to let the film feel rough around the edges, let a little more of the humanity in.
There is a stretch of the film that goes beyond anything Anderson has ever done before. The brothers, finding themselves forcibly removed from The Darjeeling Limited due to their own selfish behavior, come across three boys trying to cross a raging river. The shoddy raft they're using breaks, and the Whitmans jump in to save them. One of the young boys does not make it, and the group takes the boy to the small village where his family awaits. While there, they spend time with the villagers, and are asked to attend the funeral for the child. This takes us to a flashback of their own father's funeral. The contrast is staggering, and does a better job of showing the emotional growth of each brother than any line of dialogue could. It's also a leap forward for Anderson, who imbues the sequence with so much compassion and heart that I can only hope it's the start of a brand new direction for him.
The Darjeeling Limited is a transitional work. Anderson is, to an extent, still working within his comfort zone, but it's possible to see the beginnings of a new way of working. While it's not as airtight as his last two pictures, the willingness to let the piece breathe, and not always come together perfectly, opens up new avenues for Anderson to explore. The Darjeeling Limited might feel like a slightly lesser retread of his previous works, but in its own way, it's as important as anything he's ever done.
The Image and Audio:
A shot from Hotel Chevalier, the short film that accompanies The Darjeeling Limited.