The Reeler

Reviews

September 27, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Anderson chucks the suffocating quirks from the train for his most emotionally complex film yet

How do you build a Wes Anderson frame on an Indian train? That frame is a trademark: symmetrical or just slightly off in the bisection; crammed with peripheral details made for DVD freeze-framing; static tableaux entrapping the people within it. It wasn't always so -- Bottle Rocket was downright sloppy with shots de-emphasizing composition. Rushmore shifted perfectly between its formal jonesing and hand-held cameras to emphasize emotion. It seemed that formal rigor had been happily married to visceral reactions.

Not coincidentally, Anderson’s first and second films were also the most emotionally volatile of his career, their adolescent protagonists swinging between unconvincing internalization (externally manifested in the bizarre) and open despair in a heartbeat. But something calcified in The Royal Tenenbaums; characters squared off in a closet, and all eyes were on the panoply of game boards on either side. In Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the protagonists' emotional constriction had become the films' own -- any real feeling was buried deep beneath the elaborate shots and miniature sets.

Anderson's latest, The Darjeeling Limited, is a landmark eruption: No more stifled adolescents. The Whitman clan -- brothers Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) -- process trauma and confront grief, no clever soundtrack required. In the opening shot, a taxi with Bill Murray (cryptically credited as The Businessman) races towards a train station. "That's my train," Murray yells, running alongside Peter, but he’s not fast enough to climb aboard. Peter clambers on in slow-motion, regarding the receding businessman with a quickly registered glance that is equal parts empathy, amusement and sadness.

The businessman can't make it because he's too old; like Rushmore's Herman Blume or Steve Zissou, he's too mired in decades-old despair to change. But Peter is here to reunite with his brothers, to try to mature. Dad's dead, Mom's in a monastery and the three brothers haven't spoken in the year since the funeral. They chain-smoke and abuse cheap Indian cough syrup to get high; only harmful things bring them together. Initially it seems like Peter and Jack vs. control-freak Francis, but things aren't so simple: Like every Anderson family (besides Rushmore's Max Fischer and his ever-patient dad), it's one divided against itself in every possible permutation. (Ironically, the Anderson family is the same cast of players: once more Anjelica Huston as the mom, Wilson as the fuck-up son, and a dad in absentia -- though this time by death rather than estrangement. The sibling rivalry is a much-improved Tenenbaum riff.)

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The train's long corridors and tight sleeping quarters force Anderson to stop creating elaborate frames. Plus there's the India factor: Anderson’s avoidance of every possible Indian stereotype might be annoying for being so self-conscious, but has the unexpected bonus of cramming the shots full of peripheral details that can't be parsed. Darjeeling is new terrain, geographically and emotionally, and it frees the actors up as much as it does for Anderson. Wilson no longer seems to be going through the stoner-drawl motions, Schwartzman tempers his distinctive timing with a new layer of despair and Brody redeems five years of bad performances in worse movies. As the movie's emotional linchpin, he's a revelation.

More than Life Aquatic's hermetic, sustained ode to impending mortality, more than Tenenbaum's attempted suicide, more than Rushmore's shadow of ever-present death, Darjeeling confronts death, guilt and grief head-on; more importantly, it forces its characters to actually process and deal with trauma, rather than internalize it and return to being quirkily cute. A gorgeous, virtuoso 15-minutes in the middle of the film is the most sustained portrait of grief and despair Anderson has ever dared attempt, certainly without retreating into comic relief. The result -- a passage of one death and funeral brilliantly punctuated by an unexpected flashback to a previous funeral -- may be the single most compelling sequence of Anderson's career to date.

The Whitman brothers come with a set their father's ornately decorated luggage (a Louis Vuitton one-off; Anderson's characters seem to get more upwardly mobile with every film). Late in the movie, they throw it off the train. This is one of several last-reel missteps; yes, they're throwing their emotional baggage away. Look more generously, though, and you'll see Anderson chucking away the last remnants of his quickly self-parodying, suffocating over-design. The Darjeeling Limited is the boldest, most open and emotionally complex film he's made yet.



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