We Haven’t Located Us Yet
*Sorry about the late-ness of this post. Got caught up in work. Remember, this entire series fully SPOILS the movies.
The critical evaluation of The Darjeeling Limited has changed a lot since its release. The initial reception was pretty positive. Especially compared to The Life Aquatic’s thrashing. But as time has wound its merry way closer to the inevitable heat death of the universe, there’s been a small change in opinion. The Darjeeling Limited is now widely considered Anderson’s worst film. And, well, as much as I would like to take a daring critical stand in this retrospective, I’m not going to do so for this movie.
The Darjeeling Limited manages to improve on The Life Aquatic in one important way: it’s nearly a half hour shorter. Sadly, this doesn’t mean it’s the better movie. The Darjeeling Limited is certainly the more consistent, but it lacks anything nearly as good as the Jaguar Shark scene. And it manages to stumbles onto a whole host of problems unique to it. Like that strange colonialist tinge.
I like talking about the political aspect of movies, but I’ve made something of an exception for this retrospective. The reason’s pretty simple: the political aspect of Anderson movies tend to be fairly trivial. With The Darjeeling Limited, however, he stepped into very murky political waters.
Anderson’s movies largely occur in fantastic stylized worlds with little congruency to the real one. Bottle Rocket’s Texas has brightly colored jumpsuit sales and kimono wearing criminal masterminds. Rushmore’s academy seems the idealization of a prep school rather than a real place where real people exist. The Royal Tenenbaums is ostensibly set in New York, but you wouldn’t exactly know it. And The Life Aquatic broadens Tenenbaums’ childhood universe to encompass an entire aquatic world. Fantastic universes can and have been used to make political points. They can also be used to distance the viewer from the real world. Anderson’s interests tend to the latter.
But the real world setting of The Darjeeling Limited isn’t dismissed quite so easily. India is a real place. One where actual real people live actual real lives that deal with actual real problems. Western media hasn’t really been too successful at depicting this complexity. But The Darjeeling Limited isn’t interested in depicting the real India. The India of the movie is just another one of Anderson’s fantasy constructs, this time cobbled together from Merchant-Ivory productions and the works of Satyajit Ray. The film shows this in the series of cuts that transport Peter through the train, going from the cramped coach car:
at a long remove from the Indian masses, locked away in their own special cabin. It’s the film telling us that we’re not going to be watching a story about India but a story where India is an element in the background.
This becomes a lot more problematic when we find out why Francis has arranged the trip:
”Let’s make an agreement. A: I want us to become brothers again like we used to be and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other…B: I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey where each of us seek the unknown and we learn about it…C: I want us to be completely open and say yes to everything even if it’s shocking and painful. Can we agree to that?”
The others agree. The laws of storytelling dictate the immediate disruption of such plans and, according to form, they are. But the actual story follows Francis’s monologue. Those things are what happen. They just happen in ways they don’t expect.
After they’ve been kicked off the eponymous train for bad behavior, the Whitmans come across three boys rafting across a river. One of the ropes gives way, tossing the three boys into the water. The Whitmans try to help, but only manage to rescue two. The Whitmans help the boys to their village and are invited to stay for the funeral. The funeral bookends a flashback to the last time the brothers were together, during their father’s funeral.
This segment is quite well made, but it still uses the death of an Indian child to stir positive change in the white protagonists. We aren’t following the story of the child, his family or his village. We are following the story of the Whitmans: a group of rich, white, Western men. And their mid-film change of heart (shown as positive) is brought about by the death of an Indian boy. I try not to make moral judgments on movies very often, but it strikes me as somewhat hypocritical that a film which calls out its characters on their narcissism and reductionist views on India so regularly:
can use this plot device to inspire change in its characters.
But the film’s political context isn’t its only weakness. For the first time Anderson doesn’t seem to can have a strong grasp on his main characters. Francis, Jack and Peter don’t fall easily into nice archetypes. They’re more complex creations. But the characteristics afforded to them are various and diffuse. Anderson’s best characters also tend to be his most specific: Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum and Dignan are all very particular people. It’s possible to plug them into any scenario and figure out their reaction. The same can’t be said for the Whitmans. They get character beats, sure. But often it seems as if the details we learn never cohere into a complete human personality. It’s one of Anderson’s most common criticisms, but only here and in The Life Aquatic does it seem a fatal wound.
There are, however, some saving graces. Despite my grousing about the characterization, some of the details are quite lovely, even if they don’t add up. Like the moment Peter enters their compartment and sees Jack:
It’s a small moment but it lays out how the two relate. Peter wants to be thought of as the cool older brother and Jack likes it, even if he realizes it’s all a show.
The way the two relate to Francis is also pretty well sketched. While Francis delivers his little speech about the purpose of the trip his two brothers respond to each of his clauses in different ways. Both seem to be taking the trip as an indulgence to Francis, but Jack hides this behind his agreement and eagerness while Peter highlights the favor with some passive aggressiveness.
Other bits and pieces that stick out is Jack’s destruction of the perfume bottle (it’s an attempt to exorcise the memory of his ex-girlfriend, but he ends up suffusing the cabin with her scent) and the message Peter wants to relate to the dead boy’s family:
“Can you explain that I almost had him? I lost him when we went over the rocks. He was too slippery. I had him the whole rest of the time. I want them to know that.”
It’s an odd bit of dialogue. But it feels organic. Francis is having trouble processing the death. I can’t figure out why he wants to tell the family this exactly, but it seems real somehow.
In the beginning of the story he shows up battered and bruised and tells his siblings the story of his accident. In a series of slow zooms into Owen Wilson’s face Francis tells us about how his motorcycle skidded and catapulted him into the side of a hill. The details are practiced and precise and the delivery is typically dry, but there’s a haunted look in Owen Wilson’s eyes and the final line: “The first thing I thought of when I woke up was, ‘I wish Peter and Jack were here.’” is suitably devastating, especially in the ways in which it relates to the personal lives of the actor and his director. It lends the storyline a raw, grounded sensation that comes back around in the bathroom scene at the airport:
The overarching storyline, though, lacks the emotional specificity of these moments. So, when we get to the culminating tracking shot, it seems the least resonant of all of Anderson’s movies. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking: the movie cuts along to the rhythms of “Arrival in Benaras” as the brothers climb the mountain, slips into a swiveling tracking shot that moves between each of the Whitmans and ends in a slow zoom into their faces:
For the first time in the film Anderson’s influences are reconciled: the music is Merchant-Ivory but that zoom is vintage Ray. And, for a moment, things work. But it’s too little too late.
The Darjeeling Limited has its moments, but that’s all they are; moments. They don’t add up to much. But the movie remains interesting, if only for the ways in which it departs from Anderson’s regular theme of adolescence. The Whitmans are, perhaps, the most adult subjects Anderson has set his film around. They treat each other like young, squabbling siblings, but their personal problems are more complex and “adult” than those plaguing the other protagonists. And I think that is the film’s overarching problem. It attempts to deal with these issues in the same way Anderson dealt with Max Fischer and the Tenenbaums. But some things don’t come together quite so easily. Some problems just can’t be washed away by a trip to India. And maybe that’s why the film’s climax just doesn’t work.
No matter how Anderson tries to gussy it up with slow motion and a Kinks song, the brothers running to their train while sloughing off the emotional baggage of their father’s death rings a bit hollow.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)