Ask someone what they reckon is the worst Wes Anderson movie. Almost everyone will tell you it’s “the one with the train”. The first thing you need to know is that they’re very wrong. The Darjeeling Limited is actually pretty great. There’s a lot to love about this movie, and history is ready to come around on it.
And let’s be honest with ourselves – the worst Wes Anderson film is the one with the runaway kids and the scouts (Moonrise Kingdom). But even the worst Wes Anderson film is still pretty good.
From the time the movie was released, audiences had a fractured relationship with The Darjeeling Limited. The film is purposefully difficult to love, with Anderson taking a detour from his usual filmmaking template. It has the director bringing to life obnoxious characters that aren’t there to be cheered on, as they are in his other films; here, they’re rather toxic people. The movie also rejects Anderson’s usual themes of father issues to instead consider the effect of maternal abandonment.
The result is a movie that looks like the rest of Wes Anderson’s work, but it feels odd. Something is not quite as expected. From the very first scene, he’s telling us he’s doing something different with this movie.
The frantic opening. Try and catch up.
The film opens with a perfect Wes Anderson movie moment. Speeding through the streets of a busy city in India is Bill Murray in the back of a taxi. Dressed in a cheap business suit and a pork pie hat, Murray is running late to catch a train. He dives out of the taxi at the station, quickly buys his ticket, then races along the platform to jump onto the train that’s already departing.
As an audience, we expect Bill Murray to make that train. After all, everyone loves Bill Murray in a Wes Anderson film, the hero of many of them, and this movie is set on that very train.
As businessman Bill runs for it, we see coming up alongside him another late and hopeful passenger. Adrien Brody throws his suitcase aboard and pulls himself onto the back while
Bill Murray is left behind, forlorn on the platform.
It’s a road movie. But on a train.
This is a road movie in every way, with new characters, locations and experiences introduced during the protagonists’ journey. Cinema is filled with great road movies that can take their characters anywhere the open road can offer.
But this is a fixed journey on rails. Any destination is possible in this film as long as geographically it is exactly where this train is supposed to go. So, we’re trapped with the main players, three brothers who are emotionally stunted and confused, often acting out against each other and the people around them, traits not uncommon for Anderson.
The train ride itself is gorgeous, but we rarely get a look outside the window as the brothers are so focused on themselves. Part of the fun is watching this ridiculous trio taking a trip that is supposed to spiritually open them up, but they’re just too self-interested to go there.
They’re not white saviours. They’re just lame tourists.
The Darjeeling Limited is unique for a Wes Anderson film in that it lifts the characters out of a traditional Anglo environment and places them on a journey across India. Where their behaviour would usually be acted and reacted upon, the main characters are largely ignored by everyone around them.
While the film may be told from the perspective of the brothers finding themselves in a far-off, exotic land, to all the other players, these guys are just tourists who will be gone tomorrow and replaced with another awful bunch of visitors.
Much of the film is Wes Anderson delivering a savage criticism on just how awful and self-centred his characters are. There’s a moment early on which shows how little regard they have for everyone around them – when youngest brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman) first sees train stewardess Rita (Amara Karan making her film debut), he makes his ‘romantic’ aspirations known not by talking to her, but rather by making a claim on her from a distance. It’s gross, and the film doesn’t make excuses for him.
In the film’s most dramatic moment, the brothers witness a fatal accident on a river involving some tween boys. The people from their village welcome the brothers, but at no point are they held up as heroes – the entire scene is sombre and respectful.
And that’s the secret of this movie. The characters aren’t heroes. They’re not to be looked up to. If anything, if you see any of these guys coming towards you, make your excuses and head the other way. Sure, by the end of the movie they’re more self-aware, but they’re still messy people.
Great travelling companions for a movie, but not the sort you’d willingly share a train cabin with in real life.
The Darjeeling Limited airs on SBS World Movies on Tuesday, 19 May at 9:30PM (and repeats Wednesday, May 20 at 12:05AM)