It was a boarding school in Rushmore, a gorgeous city home in The Royal Tenenbaums, and a grand oceanic vessel in The Life Aquatic; Wes Anderson has a jones for condensed spaces. In The Darjeeling Limited, it's a luxurious locomotive rolling through the sublime terrain of Darjeeling, India. Stowed away amongst the German tourists and the toppling luggage are the Whitman Brothers (Jack, Francis, and Peter), a gang of American buffoons trying to find enlightenment, salvation, and relief amidst the sand dunes.
The eldest Whitman brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), found time for an epiphany as he lay on the ground after a motorcycle accident, leaving to wonder why his younger brothers weren't with him. His remedy consists of a brotherly train trip accompanied by a surprise visit to their estranged mother's parish. Don't worry: There's a laminated itinerary if you get confused. The youngest, Jack (Anderson staple Jason Schwartzman), comes aboard to shed the skin of his ex-girlfriend while Peter (Anderson newbie Adrien Brody), the middle brother, has begun feeling desperation over his impending fatherhood. Moreover, they are digging and scratching at every surface to hide the grief over their father's passing; the event that caused their initial scattering.
Tourists at heart, the Whitman boys grab up every ritual, ceremony, and rare specimen of India that they can get their hands on, including a venomous snake and a can of mace. The constant interruptions, the flings with Indian girls, the compulsive stealing; the brothers grieve but not properly. With each absurd grasp at the unknown, the brothers move further away from the act of accepting their father's death and closer to maddening stasis. It is even apparent in the opening scene: an older man (the required Bill Murray) running for a train is outrun by a long-limbed Peter. The old man's inability to drop his cumbersome luggage becomes a key symbol of the film; a brilliant image that will come back at the film's culmination.
After spiritual incarnations involving feather-burying, bell-ringing, and temple-worshipping fail, the moment of truth finally comes when the brothers attempt to save three kids from drowning; two survive but one dies. In an open Renoir reference, the boys hang around an Indian village and are there for the child's funeral, dumbstruck by the heroic sadness of the boy's father (Irfan Khan). Though they still must visit mom (Anjelica Huston), it's in the village that the boys finally come to terms with their father and their repressed melancholy.
The village finds hope in these lost Americans, even if Francis' initial reaction to the drowning kids is "Look at these assholes!" Beautifully shot by Anderson's ace cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, the filmmaker's search for the unknown leads to a whimsical sense of spirituality for both him and the Whitman boys, easily delineating Darjeeling as the auteur's best work to date. The use of songs by the Kinks, the Marc Jacobs designs, the dazed pastels; its all Anderson to a T, but it's the first time these elements have allowed Anderson to roam free, rather than cooping him up inside.
Getting crowded in here.