For his latest adventure, Wes Anderson follows three brothers on a tour through India, their luxurious transport a train called the Darjeeling Limited. Francis, Jack, and Peter Whitman meet on board with their lives in disarray. Their mission, as declared by Owen Wilson’s Francis –- who bursts into the film as a bandaged boy-scout head case –- is modern-American absurd: “We’re here to find ourselves and bond with each other,” he declares. “Can we agree to that?” Francis then produces a list of “spiritual places we have to see.” And off we go in this new offering from Anderson, whose oeuvre and current locale prompts one unsettling question: Has the twee auteur become a Marc Jacobs imperialist, leading his Wasp pilgrimage through the jewel in the crown and fattening his menagerie of eccentrics?
He certainly plays with the idea. If not quite ugly Americans, the brothers Whitman sure are goofy ones. So sure is Anderson’s ear for brother dynamics that their age order is clear within three lines of dialogue: the youngest Jack, the moony middle Peter (new Anderson clan adoptee, Adrian Brody), and the overbearing eldest, Francis. Two of the characters offer a kind of best-of-Wes retrospective. As Jack, a mustachioed Jason Schwartzman reassumes shades of Rushmore’s indomitable sophomore Max Fischer, still boyish years later, still trying for soulful sophistication, adding portable mood-music when necessary. He spends the film barefoot in a suit a la Paul (Is Dead) McCartney, although he’s more the group’s Davey Jones – his hair semi-bowlcut, making eyes at pretty girls. As Francis, Wilson brings back the corn-fed, spaced-out enthusiasm of his career-making character Dignan in the Anderson debut Bottle Rocket, recasting the caper-seeking outlaw as an adult shattered by near-death experience but still perilously full of gung-ho. He manfully leads Jack and Peter on a forced family march to enlightenment -– complete with laminated itinerary and detailed user instructions.
With varying degrees of desperation, they go from one Spiritual Place to another: kneeling, ringing bells, donning ritual headwraps – three greedy tourists grabbing at epiphany. Yes, they’re ridiculous, but as the film unfolds so does the pain behind their desperation. In fact, it’s even telegraphed in the opening scene, a rhapsodic visual tragedy starring sad-clown Bill Murray.
In his current apogee in public esteem, Bill Murray is what a literature professor of mine once called a fire engine. That’s something in a story — a hint, event, or character — that you notice without knowing why, and that eventually proves crucial to the tale. It’s a fire engine because you watch where a fire engine is going. And at the first sight of Bill Murray — jostling in an Indian taxi wearing a suit and Man Who Knew Too Much fedora — you watch where he’s going. And where he’s going is out of the picture. Using Murray almost as a silent-film actor, the director tells you everything you need to know about the story’s instigating event in one knockout opening scene. In one of the film’s four, count’em four, slo-mo processionals across the screen, Murray runs to catch a train.
As he strives forward he’s slowly passed by a running Brodie -– who enters frame and film from the right, younger man outpacing older, the soundtrack playing the Kinks’ elegiac “This Time Tomorrow.” “I’ll leave the sun behind me/And I’ll watch the clouds as they sadly pass me by.” Two men race to catch a train. The younger makes it, the older doesn’t. And as he clambers aboard, Brodie’s Peter stares back at the receding figure of the older man, his long soulful face wearing an expression it will take the rest of the film to explain.
They say an author spends his career rewriting the same book and Anderson certainly does like certain terrain. In his films, we can usually count on one suicide attempt, one physically or emotionally absent parent, some mannish boys, some boyish men, some spiritual questing, some repressed grief, meticulous composition, and deep-album-cuts from the British Invasion. Add an exotic locale and three well-financed gadabouts and you have the boilerplate for The Darjeeling Express, Anderson’s finest iteration of the Anderson oeuvre.
The brothers Whitman are on this reunion trip because their family was recently shattered. Months earlier, a car accident claimed their father, whose very memory they fight over as they wander from site to holy site. The scenery is gorgeous, but the pilgrimage far from pretty. Through boxy luggage and long, flailing limbs, Anderson expertly conveys the general gracelessness of America in the world as his characters stumble between settings in suits, loafers, and a cane, wrestling on the train’s floor, spraying each other with mace, imposing their gaze with gleeful obliviousness. “Those guys are laughing at us,” says Jack noting kids on a wall. “I love it here,” says resolute Francis. “These people are beautiful.” “Those guys are playing cricket with a tennis ball,” says Peter.
But after a while, the scenery sucks them in. The film announces this with an abrupt, action-film zoom that swoops onto Wilson’s face as he offers the international greeting, “Look at those assholes.” Cut to three young boys piloting an overladen raft across a river. The raft overturns, Francis yells, “Go” and off the brothers race to save their Indian counterparts. They fish out two, but as Peter struggles with the third a rope breaks, he and boy sail down the rapids, and seconds later, Peter stands blood-drenched stammering, a limp a body in his arms. “He’s dead,” says Peter. “I didn’t save mine.” The drastic shift in tone perfectly mimics the way real-life tragedy ambushes the mundane and flips your life’s genre for good. Stunned, the not-so-merry pranksters carry the boy back to his village where the film kneels in solemn homage to Renoir’s The River.
Also set in India, the Renoir film depicted the funeral of a young boy on the banks of a “life giving” river, the Ganges. Anderson spares no detail in giving a commensurate stateliness to his village tragedy. The Whitmans sit in various states of immersion with the locals — Peter in swami-like repose watching a baby swing in a cradle, Jack sitting with women plaiting flowers on a garland, Francis lying on a litter, wordlessly offering a boy a handshake. To the sound of women crying, we cut to the image of a father washing a small shirtless body soon to be given to the river. These people know how to mourn.
The brothers’ role in this particular funeral is, apparently, to reprise the album cover of Abbey Road. And so, in another slo-mo processional, Wilson, Schwartzman, and Brodie walk in profile to the funeral, moving left to right as the soundtrack plays The Kinks’ swaying “Strangers.” It’s a dicey move, throwing yet another of Kinks promenade past the viewer, but the moment works. It suggests an emotional undercurrent that binds these strangers in grief, the sense of some ritual transformation actually taking hold. “I will follow you wherever you go,” goes the song. “Strangers on this road we are on/We are not two we are one.” Anderson knows how to use a pop song.
India might seem a bit of stretch for Anderson, who has always hewed to cozier, tonier settings -– a prep school, a brownstone, an oceanographic vessel. But this is an India mediated by the Beatles and French films, an India romanticized by Westerners overlooking nukes and disease. It’s an India of cinema and the mind and one Anderson navigates quite ably. Detractors may foam at the sight of these obscurely well-financed white boys trotting around with their prodigious luggage toted by an array of brown servants. But there’s no way as fastidious a composer of images lets something like this go by unintentionally. Instead, he’s inviting to see the folly of these jolie-laid Americans imposing themselves on people and scenery and missing the point half the time, the truth all around them if they’d only open their eyes.
Much of this works through the use of almost maniacally over-composed mise-en-scene. Nearly every static shot of the voyagers includes their boxy, impractical luggage – stacked on a platform, piled at a train station, standing next to a yak. Six or seven rust-colored leather trunks and suitcases form the visual spine of the film, even coordinating with the brown and turquoise interior of the Darjeeling Limited — a too-perfect visual rhyme that establishes the film’s world of parable, acid trip, or children’s story, a world where every color and word has meaning. At one point the train has become lost after a wrong turn in the desert and someone explains to Francis, “We haven’t located us yet.” “Aah!” he yells. “Is that symbolic?! We. Haven’t located. Us. Yet.” He can’t contain himself. “Where’s those feathers you got? Meet me on top of that thing out there!” And off to the hills they go to perform rituals from the book of Three Amigos.
Most of Anderson’s films are about spirituality. And like most of them, Darjeeling draws deeply from the Great American Ninth Grade Syllabus, specifically that Post-War bard of adolescent spiritual longing, J.D. Salinger, more specifically Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey. The DNA of that book ran a bit too obviously through the Tennenbaum clan – the quirky genius siblings, the suicidal older brother, the Eisenhower-era decor – but here Anderson integrates Salinger more vertically than such superficial borrowings suggest. In a sense, his three brothers are retracing the couch-bound journey of Franny Glass, who desperately repeats a Christian mantra in the hopes she’ll receive grace and end the spiritual hunger that keeps her lingering on the outer edge of childhood. The ritual is important if only as an act of good faith. Take one step towards Epiphany and there’s a chance Epiphany might take two towards you.
Of course, nothing smells worse than an unearned epiphany. You can fake them in films with swelling Bowie songs and tight emotive headshots, but it leaves a bad taste when the characters haven’t earned it. Such was the effect of the oddly lifeless Life Aquatic, Anderson’s last and worst film, which seemed based solely around Bill Murray’s prodigious charm. But the characters in Darjeeling earn their shot at redemption — partially through excellent performances by Brodie and Wilson, partially by meta-narrative devices that reveal the reality behind works of fiction. The companion short, Hotel Chevalier, which will show only online and at festivals yet which the director hopes everyone will see before The Darjeeling Limited practically dares you to dismiss the new Anderson, based as it is on cutesy Europhilia and the improbable allure of Jason Schwartzman’s bare feet. But it serves two important roles. It fleshes out the ongoing romantic drama the character Jack will bring with him to India and, in its micromanaged rules for viewing, cannily reveals just who the control-freak Francis really represents. Carefully orchestrating peak experiences, demanding participants be moved or enlightened – Francis is a film director. He’s Anderson. “They’re fictional characters,” Jack keeps insisting of the people in his short stories, although these characters happen to do and say the same things his loved ones do.
In the same playfully oblique way, Anderson’s casting Bill Murray uses the actor’s real-life aura, revealing a new side of Murray that few of Anderson’s coevals might have considered. He’s the father we all wish we had. And in this story, Murray symbolizes the father three arrested boy-men must find a way to live without. The young men are post-religious Americans bereft by imploded Western faiths and a father lost to history.
In The River, men dye themselves red to celebrate spring, red being the Indian color of rebirth. So it is in the last scenes of The Darjeeling Limited. After their funeral and a rapprochement with their estranged mom (Angelica Huston) — who has taken vows as a Catholic nun — the brothers return to the city in a candy-apple red taxi. Then they must go for one last run after a train — this time a red one. They make one last sprint to a Kinks song, “Powerman” – completing the Kinks triptych and, as in the first song, leaving something precious behind. “Dad’s bags aren’t gonna make it,” yells a brother, and off the trunks and suitcases go tumbling onto tracks. Only the brothers make the train, free and clear, leaving treasured baggage behind them and continuing on life’s train ride.
© 2007 by Chris Norris