The old man I live with is not a fan of Wes Anderson. Perhaps that is unfair. It is difficult to pin down what the guy likes and dislikes because he consumes everything. As a retiree extraordinaire, he has nothing but time to see, well, everything. And that is what he does. I have witnessed him roundly denounce a show or film, only to enter the living and see that same program playing before his eyes. Boredom will do funny things to you, I suppose. The reason I started off this review with a supposition on his feelings on Wes Anderson is because he got up (a remarkable feat in itself) after roughly twenty minutes of Rushmore (1998) and went to bed. One thing I can say about him with certainty is that he loves trains. I knew before watching today’s movie, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) that it featured a trip on a locomotive. Then again, the title does give that part away. Nonetheless, I thought I would soften the Wes Anderson onslaught last night by giving him a film with a feature that he could somewhat appreciate.
There is a businessman (Bill Murray) frantically trying to catch The Darjeeling Limited, a tourist train that takes people around India. The businessman, though, is not the main character. During his frantic sprint on the platform to hop aboard the already departing train, he is passed by Peter Whitman (Adrian Brody). He barely makes it, looking back to see a defeated businessman as he heads off. Picking his way through the other passengers, he makes it to the compartment he will be sharing with his three brothers. The one waiting in it already is the youngest, Jack (Jason Schwartzman). They both wonder where the oldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), is as he has yet to make an appearance. When he does, it is with a heavily bandaged face and a slight limp, the result of a horrific motorcycle accident that we later learn was self-inflicted. Francis is thankful for his brothers being there, but their reluctance to do so begins to surface when their elder begins to assert his control over their trip. Francis tells them that they are there for a “spiritual journey,” though this is muddled by his demands, their drug use, and their obsessions over material items. It also becomes apparent that there are all dealing with the death of their father in different ways. Jack has been wandering Europe since that day, Francis attempted to take his own life, and Peter is running from his pregnant wife. They also seek to hide potentially embarrassing information about themselves to each other, which is invariably used against one another in moments of spite. Hence, their “spiritual journey” is not off to a good start. The problems continue when, after a stop at a Hindu sacred site, they spend more time buying things than experiencing the local culture. The cobra that Peter purchases and brings aboard comes to the attention of the train’s chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia), and he seeks to have the Whitman brothers thrown off when the snake gets loose. The final straw comes over a disagreement over their ultimate destination. Francis had waited until they were well into their trip to reveal that their end goal is to reunite with their estranged mother, who had left the family to become Sister Patricia (Anjelica Huston), a Catholic nun in the Indian Himalayas. Their objections become violent, spilling into the corridor and damaging property, and giving the chief steward the excuse he needs to send away the Whitmans. Left to walk, their trek takes them along a swift stream where they encounter a group of boys trying to cross on a makeshift ferry. When it capsizes, they jump into the water to save them. They are able to rescue two of the three alive, with the one Peter went after dying in his arms. This takes them to the boys’ village, where they are asked to stay for the funeral. Doing so reminds them of their own experiences with their father’s service, and how they had missed it while bickering over what to do with his Porsche. By attending this funeral, it helps give them closure their dad. They believe this to be what they needed all along from their trip, but when they go to the airport to leave, they find themselves slipping back into many of their old habits. As such, they decide to forego returning to their lives to complete the original mission of finding their mother. When they finally make it to the convent, they are able to confront their mother about why she left and did not also come to their dad’s funeral. The answer is pretty simple: they were no longer married and she had started a new life. She then tells them they will come up with new plans for their lives in the morning, but then is not around when they awaken. This also seems to offer them closure, and from there they decide to return home, shedding their baggage to catch another train.
There is a great deal of symbolism at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. Earlier, you see many scenes of them caring more about material things. With Francis and Peter, there is the constant back and forth giving and taking away of an expensive belt. Jack obsesses over relationships, constantly checking his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, and sleeping with train stewardess Rita (Amara Karan). When they are not pursuing anything other than the stated purpose of the trip, they numb themselves with pain killers. Clearly, they are trying to block out or escape from painful feelings, and it is tied to their parents. Biblically speaking, we are called to honor our parents. In some respects, this is what the Whitman brothers do. Peter uses a great deal of his late father’s items, but their luggage is the most obvious sign that they cared about their deceased parent. What is equally clear is that it is an obsession, and at this point it stops being about honoring them. It is important to have boundaries, especially with your parents. It is a part of growing up, and something with which they struggle. This is what makes the final scene of them dropping their luggage to make the train so poignant. It completes the lessons they learned along the way, and it shows that they are ready to move on with their lives.
I was also delighted to see that The Darjeeling Limited features the Whitman’s mother becoming a Catholic nun. However, given what I mentioned about Rushmore being about a Catholic school and semi-autobiographical, this is less of a surprise. Of course, Huston’s look as a nun is all wrong, but her behavior is pretty accurate. One might look at her suddenly leaving in the morning as mean-spirited. To me, this is in keeping with what nuns do. Like any member of a religious order, their lives are not their own and they go where they are called by God. This also seems to have been her motivation to become a nun in the first place, so kudos in that respect.
Like much of what Wes Anderson does, it is hard to make a call as to whether or not I recommend The Darjeeling Limited. I will give it credit for not having the brief snapshots of borderline pornography. Still, this is marred by the fact that the Whitmans are smoker and apparently unapologetic pain killer users. We cannot seem to ever have one completely virtuous character in any of his movies. Then again, who is perfect? Anyway, you watch this movie for the “spiritual journey,” even if it is an uneven one, and the healing involved.