I’ve now seen The Darjeeling Limited three times. Hopefully this fact will not come back to bite me when (inevitably) others who have not seen it so often (or at all) point out facts about it that I have failed to note. I should come to terms with this reality.
TDL has received some bad reviews, some bad press. A popular one is, “At a stage in Wes Anderson’s career when he should take a step forward, he has taken a step back.” Can’t remember where I read that (probably Rotten Tomatoes), but it seems to sum up what a lot of people have said. First, I would like to point out ways in which that last clause of the statement is true. Then, I’d like to show that there’s a lot more to the film than that.
The beloved director (who, for brevity’s sake, will heretofore be called “Anderson”) “has taken a step back” insofar as TDL is reminiscent of Bottle Rocket in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s back to the small scale. It revolves around three characters; the rest of the cast is more incidental (to be qualified later). Also, like Bottle Rocket, TDL’s diegetic space is not confined to (or at least centrally located at) a particular spot. For example, in Rushmore, you had the school. In Tenenbaums, you had 111 Archer Ave. (the house). In Life Aquatic, you had the boat. In Bottle Rocket and TDL, there isn’t that spot to which the characters return and where they can count on the rest of the “crew” being. (This term [“the crew”] which only appears so explicitly in Bottle Rocket nonetheless is obviously present in the rest of Anderson’s corpus.) And though TDL’s very title points to the train where the brothers congregate, their expulsion from the train mid-way through the film highlights, like in Bottle Rocket, their lack of belonging to a particular place. (One might point out that Max was expelled from Rushmore only mid-way through, but he returned there even after Ms. Cross had disassociated herself from the school.)
TDL and Bottle Rocket also bear similarities in terms of their central characters. Owen Wilson’s character in each is strikingly similar, though in TDL Francis’s maturity contrasts with Dignan’s youth. In both films, the story revolves around three central male characters. In each, one of the characters in particular wrestles with a love interest – in Bottle Rocket it’s Anthony and in TDL it’s Jack. The respective “third” characters of the two films (in Bottle Rocket, Bob, and in TDL, Peter) are a little more on the quiet side with more of a nagging crisis involving a family member or two. In Bottle Rocket, Bob is constantly afraid of and worried about his domineering brother; and in TDL Peter has similar feelings toward his newly pregnant wife. And, back to Owen’s characters, Dignan and Francis both feel a pressing and ever-growing need to keep their “crew” together. Both films start out with Owen’s character showing his two cronies a “plan.” And in both films, this plan quickly disintegrates from its idealistic beginning – but in both, Owen’s character refuses to become cynical. Though frustrated and at times deflated, Dignan and Francis only require the slightest hint of hope in one of their comrades to pick things back up again and go for it.
There is a lot to say about this film, I am seeing. Too much to put here; who would read it? But since brevity is the soul of something, I’ll try to be concise.
Differences. Obviously a lot. At least, if it isn’t obvious, you’re not doing the work. Structurally, the two films are quite different, in spite of their striking similarities. True, both begin with a “plan,” involve a breakdown part-way through, and end on a hopeful note. However, Anderson went out of his way (quite literally) in TDL to interrupt the narrative at its most intense and emotional juncture (the funeral) to take the viewers and the characters back to an earlier funeral. From the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western. Even before this somewhat violent shift, there is another, occurring at the river, where three brothers in crisis meet three more in crisis. Though “death” (at the risk of oversimplifying) is a consistent theme in Anderson’s films, the death that takes place at the river is arguably the most shocking of any in Anderson’s corpus. This includes Ned’s in Life Aquatic. Ned’s character is established and his future uncertain. His leave from the military to pursue kinship with his maybe-father – after Steve has already lost his best man to a shark – leaves the possibility of Ned’s demise open. In TDL, the brothers gather to grieve their father’s death. The death at the river occurs before the new character is introduced at all. After the brothers are ousted from the train, the viewer expects a sort of pick-me-up, and the river scene offers great possibilities. Instead, someone else dies.
As an aside, this is all in no particular order.
A critique of Anderson’s films is that they are self-conscious. Precious. Melodramatic. What’s far worse, critics say this like it’s a bad thing. As if one could be healthy without being self-conscious. Certainly, Anderson has grown more self-conscious as his career has progressed. But this has led to a kind of subtlety that his earlier films lacked. Bill Murray panting, racing toward the train – that would not have happened in the earlier films. Hotel Chevalier, the short prequel and then the allusions to it within TDL. The stewardess on the train. Even, perhaps, the father of the fallen boy. There is a richness in these underdeveloped, underdone aspects of the film that only a self-conscious filmmaker could have produced. In a word, TDL takes greater work on the part of the viewer than any of Anderson’s previous films.
Something that took me by surprise was how much I loved the movie, despite a lack of Anderson’s trademark comedy. This wasn’t the funniest one he’s made, not even close. Easily the funniest line was from Francis, after the voiceover of Anjelica Huston, reading her own letter to the boys. The serious, somber tone in her voice was utterly ignored by Francis: “That sounds like bullshit to me.” I don’t remember the lines that follow, because at each viewing I laughed for awhile. But lines like this are few in TDL, whereas all four of Anderson’s other films are full of them. It creates an atmosphere capable of delivering a powerful end product, and (of course) I think Anderson succeeded. I teared up in Tenenbaums, which will always be my favorite; but in TDL I cried me a river. It was beautiful. If more critics would actually enter into the movies they watch, they would see that there is a lot more to film than technique (as important as that is). A great movie should affect you. (He said shamelessly.)