Brothers in blood aren’t always brothers in spirit, and regardless of subject, location, or genre, the immaculately constructed cinema of Wes Anderson obsessively deals with this endless dilemma. And despite the intense, almost microscopic focus on familial trauma in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, no other Anderson film so beautifully considers the complexities of sibling dynamics than The Darjeeling Limited, a breezy, colorful, and nuanced train ride through the bustling mise-en-scène of India and a loving homage to the film music of Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory. Anderson so thoroughly breaks down the troubled minutia of the Whitman brothers through patterns of dialogue and resentment that by the end we begin to feel like part of the family. As the closing credits run, we’re still unsure if that’s a good thing, yet this poetic ambiguity lingers throughout every frame, making The Darjeeling Limited a deeply rooted family tree of complex characters rather than a mere photo album or travelogue.
As with all of Anderson’s films, location plays an essential role in The Darjeeling Limited. After imprisoning Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) in a beautifully textured French hotel room with his enigmatic ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) during the film’s prologue, Hotel Chevalier, Anderson jumps continents to India, where a businessman (Bill Murray) rushes to the train station through the bustling city streets via taxi. This sequence is shot like a kinetic, rambling chase scene set to the opening music from Ray’s masterpiece The Music Room, finally ending on a glorious slow-motion tracking shot of the businessman failing to catch his departing train and Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) sprinting by him to jump on board, then watching numbly as the older man bends over out of breath. Youth, it seems, has a physical edge, but throughout the film we learn such prowess has nothing to do with a healthy mind or spirit.
Once together in their shared compartment, an unshaven Jack and a seemingly physically broken Francis (Owen Wilson) greet Peter happily but hesitantly, and we quickly learn it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since their father’s funeral a year earlier. With the train careening through the Indian countryside, the three brothers begin their journey with a series of ultimatums implored by Francis, the eldest and most fragile sibling who wears bandages on his head from a motorcycle crash. “First, I want us to be brothers again,” Francis states, implying the shared estrangement is something that can be fixed with words rather than actions. Even though all three agree, Anderson reveals the guilt, jealousy, and entitlement that still exist between the brothers. Each shares crucial information with one brother that is withheld from the other, sending personal dialogue sequences into a frenzy of calculating mistrust and crackerjack deception. It’s clear that for these men, nothing about the hierarchical family arrangement has changed since childhood.
The gliding train acts as a consistent parallel axis for Robert Yeoman’s fluid camera, which follows Peter, Francis, and Jack through the cramped corridors as the brother’s occasionally interact with a beautiful stewardess (Amara Kahn) and the stoic conductor (Waris Ahulwalia). The textures of the train, the colorful paintings on the walls, the kitchenware inscribed with the train’s logo, all relay Anderson’s love for detail and setting. More importantly, we learn more about each Whitman son as individual hosts for trauma, and how their mutual relationships bring up questions about loyalty and family. “If we weren’t brothers, do you think we’d be friends in real life?” Jack asks Francis and Peter. All three grudgingly agree they probably wouldn’t. During these reflective moments, Anderson’s use of the tracking shot takes on a swivel effect, ping-ponging back and forth between actions in elaborate long takes, departing from the presence of one character to find the sudden absence of another. The visuals become even more dynamic when the Whitmans depart for excursions into urban and religious districts. There’s hollowness to their time together, a revelatory sadness hiding beneath the façade of sacred places and objects that hold no spiritual value over them. Surrounded by the mystery of new experience, the Whitmans fold inward and relegate back to their old selves, making further broken bonds a forgone conclusion.
After getting thrown off the train for bringing a poisonous cobra onboard, the brothers stumble upon a trio of young boys drowning in a raging canal. Only two of the children survive and the boy Peter fails to save perishes on the rocks. The impending sequence transitions The Darjeeling Limited from its quirky, fleeting roots to a place of cinematic poetry. The family of the killed boy barely says a word, but welcomes the Whitmans into their home without question. The pain and anguish can be felt on the faces of each actor and Anderson sidesteps dialogue for a brilliantly constructed funeral conveying a sense of spiritual longing and faith. The Whitmans feel a distinct alienation when faced with a family unit connected by tradition and love, ultimately leading them back toward a symbiotic sense togetherness.
The other point of the brothers’ journey, unbeknownst to Peter and Jack up to this point, is a reunion with their missing mother (Angelic Huston), who’s held up in a nunnery high atop a mountainside somewhere deep in the heart of India. After arriving, all four share the film’s most sobering moment, represented by a wordless 360-degree pan that cuts to what film critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls the “Dream Train” sequence, Anderson’s vintage doll-house tracking shot that shows every other character from the film in their own, interconnected faux passenger car. This moment reveals The Darjeeling Limited as not only concerned with the conflicted relationships between brothers, but also the way parents and the rest of the world influence the growing divide between siblings.
By the end of The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson brings the Whitmans together for one last train ride home, but avoids fleshing out any acceptance to all of their questions and worries. Instead, the film shows a complicated trajectory of brotherhood and family: the confusion of not knowing, the complexity of finding out, and the beauty of giving in to the mysteries surrounding you. For the Whitmans, life has always revolved around a sphere of competition and certainty, tiny daggers of passive aggressive behavior that erodes their core until only shells remain. In the sublime final moments of The Darjeeling Limited, the brothers stop fighting the passage of time and learn to revel in the moment, yearning for the palpable substance of everyday joys instead of faking them to sustain the status quo.
Wes Anderson’s colorful, whimsical films are meant for the Blu-ray format, and the Criterion Collection’s stunning 1080p transfer of The Darjeeling Limited gets us as close as possible to the big-screen experience. The reds, yellows, and oranges of India’s landscape pop with vibrant intensity, and the textural intricacies of the train itself, which is often shot from the side in wide angle, becomes a rushing vehicle of specific character details and images. But the true wonder of the image is displayed during the night sequences, specifically when the Whitmans build a bonfire in the desert. The centralized red flames illuminate the background layers, the jagged rock face, the blue hint of dusk on the horizon, as everything remains in focus, a part of the sequence’s muted melancholy instead of drowned out in black. The DTS 5.1 HD sound design is equally impressive, mixing the diagetic sounds of the forceful train, taxicabs, prayers, and dialogue with rhythmic sitar music. Anderson’s films have always depended on music to parallel mood and character development, but The Darjeeling Limited often allows the score to stand on its own, a symbol of more than just character or setting. Anderson lovingly pays tribute to Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory by using their music to not only express the wonders of this time and place, but as a gateway for his numb characters to actually feel the palpable mystery around them.
As per usual, Criterion’s programmers have loaded their latest release with a multitude of extras. But quantity does not always result in quality. The extras for this release are evenly split between informative, analytical considerations and inconsequential fluff pieces. Aside from the essential short prologue Hotel Chevalier, the star of the disc is Matt Zoller Seitz’s 11-minute video essay entitled "Chaos and Control," in which the film critic discusses key ideas, motifs, and patterns in The Darjeeling Limited over edited footage of the film. The result is a wonderful critical examination indicative of the writer’s considerable impact on new forms of online film criticism. Also fascinating is Anderson’s 20-minute discussion with James Ivory about music in the film, the influence of Satyajit Ray on both filmmakers, and Anderson’s first experiences with the Merchant Ivory collection. The discourse is cut together with clips from early Merchant Ivory films like Bombay Talkie and The Guru, providing an interesting platform for the way film history invariably impacts each generation differently. The commentary by Anderson for Hotel Chevalier is impressive in scope and information, as the director eloquently shares his love for short films and his desire to experiment in the omnibus format. The joint audio commentary by Anderson, co-writer and star Jason Schwartzman, and co-writer Roman Coppola is more contrived and rambling, but does provide some interesting insight into the writing process and production of the film.
On the negative side there’s Barry Braverman’s pointless documentary "The Making of The Darjeeling Limited," an unstructured 40-minute slog of on-set footage where Anderson directs, the stars of the film wait around Indian locations, and the crew builds sets and manages local extras, all devoid of interviews or commentaries. A video sketch by Roman Coppola is equally indulgent, and random stills from actor Waris Ahluwalla seem like in-jokes for the cast rather than a tangible addition to the disc. Also included, Anderson’s American Express commercial that remains a fun homage to Truffaut, a loving speech by Oakley Friedberg, the young son of set designer Mark Frienberg, who spent time on location with his family raising funds for charity organizations, a silly trophy case application making fun of the film’s lack of critical awards, deleted and alternate scenes, a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Lastly, New Yorker film editor Richard Brody’s fine essay puts The Darjeeling Limited into context when considering the influence of Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir, while also exploring the film in terms of Anderson’s small oeuvre.
The Whitman brothers learn to experience the mysteries of life in Wes Anderson’s sublime The Darjeeling Limited, which gets a perfectly calibrated Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection.