Director Wes Anderson seems to like putting dysfunctional family units into confined spaces and then sitting back to see what happens. The characters don’t have to be blood related, as are the inhabitants of the home in The Royal Tenenbaums. They can be placed together through other circumstances such as the submarine crew in The Life Aquatic With Steve Ziszou.
Part of the allure of such a set up is that once the characters are in their setting, there is no where for them to go to, forcing them to relate to each other in usually comically dysfunctional ways. And here is the irony of Anderson’s latest film, The Darjeeling Limited. We have three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman) sharing a cramped train compartment for much of the film. And while they are definitely on a trip with a destination in mind, they are still trapped with each other with no where to go.
The three brothers – the oldest Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody) and Jack (Schwartzman) – have not spoken to each other in the year that has passed since their father’s funeral. Francis has gathered his two siblings in India to take a journey by rail on the titular train to see the country’s holy shrines and perhaps have a “life-changing experience” or “spiritual awakening.” Peter and Jack seem concerned that Francis may have hit his a bit too hard in the motorcycle accident that has left his head fairly bandaged, but have agreed to go along anyway.
Although all have their own, separate lives, the three immediately fall into patterns that have been engrained in all their lives. Francis, as the oldest, casually takes charge, having an assistant create daily laminated itinerary cards for the brothers and ordering their meals for them while in the dining car. The other two confide secrets with each other with the admonishment that the other is not to tell Francis, which of course they do. Each brother is a prisoner of something in their past and it is on this journey they’ll discover that they are not only each other’s jailers, but each other’s fellow prisoners as well.
The material is pure Anderson as its treatment. Audiences who have enjoyed his past films will find much to like here. Anderson’s eye for interesting and unusual production design is obviously enamored with the Indian locales where the film was shot. The script, written by Anderson in conjunction with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, is rock solid, packing much story into its 90 minute run time. The characterization is surprisingly strong as well, with much of the characterization of the brothers coming through their bickering back and forth. This is further amplified by the great chemistry that Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman share. Anyone who has siblings should recognize the dynamics that they play out here.
However, the film is probably not going to convert those who have been left cold by his previous work. More is the pity for them then, as this film is perhaps Anderson’s best work to date.
Some mention should be made of the Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, which features Schwartzman’s Jack and serves a prelude to Darjeeling Limited. In a Paris hotel, Jack is visited by the girlfriend he has recently broken up with (Natalie Portman).
The short is in a much different tone from the feature, though the two are very much joined. The short is intimate and even sensual, far more serious than Anderson’s trademarked quirkiness on display in Darjeeling. But not only does the short set up a few humorous moments in the main film, it definitely does work as a companion piece by fleshing out the particulars of Jack’s emotional state when he meets his brothers soon after this Paris rendezvous. While Hotel Chevalier is running with The Darjeeling Limited at festival screenings, it will not be during Darjeeling’s regular theatrical run. It is available through online sources like iTunes and will be included on the eventual DVD release.