The Darjeeling Limited (2007) dir. Wes Anderson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrian Brody
Warning: Spoilers contained here:
After going big with “The Life Aquatic” Wes Anderson has wisely scaled back his latest production to tell an intimate story of three brothers struggling to get through the baggage of their past and rekindle their friendship while on a spiritual journey through India. The stunning visuals make up for a story that starts off well but loses momentum in the second half.
The opening scene is a fun action sequence. The camera is following Anderson’s favourite actor Bill Murray through the streets of an unnamed Indian city. He’s racing to catch the “Darjeeling Limited” train. He’s running down the platform but not fast enough to make the jump on the last car. Just as he gives up, a more fleet of foot Adrian Brody emerges beside him and successfully makes the jump. Murray is left off the train, and off the film. It’s a neat piece of misdirection from Anderson.
We then follow Brody, playing Peter Whitman, who joins up with his two brothers, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis (Owen Wilson) who are on the same train taking the same journey. The ride is organized with obsessive detail by Francis and his assistant Brendan as a way of reconnecting after the death of their father one year before.
It’s clear there’s much baggage between the three and so Jack and Peter are suspect of Francis’ motives. His intent is meaningful but immediately Francis’ commanding presence over the two starts to annoy each other. One of Francis’ many petty annoyances is his habit of ordering food for his brothers at restaurants. There are a couple of wonderful scenes that showcase this with great comic timing of the actors.
Brody, Wilson and Schartzman are a great trio. As brothers they are completely different in appearance (a 5-6 inch difference between Brody and Schwartzman), but they have a report and a common manner of speaking that is realistic for brothers. And while the dialogue zings like a Hawks film, there are moments of silent glances that say more about brotherly relationship than any line of dialogue.
The characters are typically Andersonian – privileged men who act like children stunted from absentee parenting. The backstory of their younger lives are not fully fleshed out, but with a Wes Anderson film they don’t need to be. Anyone familiar with his films knows his characters’ frailties. And in “Darjeeling” they are much the same. At the midway point in the film, Francis’ plan is halted and the trio are forced to deal with their problems ad hoc without the security of the train and Francis’ itinerary.
Thematically, getting off the train is a great metaphor for the next step in the mending of the lives, but cinematically the film suffers and loses direction. When they eventually meet up with their mother (Angelica Huston), these scenes fail to pay off the set up in the previous two acts. The film then slowly loses steam and deflates without a whimper. At this point only the beautiful imagery and music were keeping my attention.
Like all his films Wes Anderson and his DOP Robert Yeoman shoot the film with wide angle anamorphic lenses. There’s something to look at in every part of the shot. When the camera is framed for its close-ups the actor’s faces jump out of the screen giving each character a larger than life persona. As customary Anderson’s camera movements are kept to parallel and perpendicular patterns. With the wide angle lens the movements are exaggerated and so the camera becomes a character in the film - the wonderful opening scene as prime example.
Since this is Anderson’s fifth film, I was somewhat disappointed he couldn’t expand his storytelling skills and give us something we hadn’t seen or heard before – the quirky compositions, deadpan humour, intellectual dialogue, super slo-mo set pieces, mod music etc. While I do appreciate a director who can create a consistency in style across his or her body of work, as mentioned, the similarities go beyond the style and into story, character, theme and tone.
Years from now when we look back on Anderson’s films, we may be calling him a genius, but I doubt we’ll be able to remember the difference between Owen Wilson’s four main characters: Dignan (Bottle Rocket), Eli (Royal Tenenbaums), Ned (Life Aquatic) or Francis (The Darjeeling Limited). I’ll let him off the hook now, but next time…
P.S. Wes Anderson advises you to watch his short film prologue “Hotel Chevalier” starring Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman before viewing the film. I've seen it. It's really boring and pretentious - don't bother.