As odd as it seems, my favorite moment in The Darjeeling Limited, the moment that I found most intriguing, captivating, and affecting, was its closing credits. And I say that with nary ounce of snark or disdain.
Wes Anderson’s latest ends with a shot of our protagonists — three estranged brothers played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman — gazing out the window before they shuffle down the hall to the dinner cabin for a drink and a smoke. The camera pans until it’s parallel with the train, and we spend the rest of the credits watching the gorgeous Indian countryside pass by and the hypnotic sway of the train cars while Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Élysées” and later, a haunting piece of Indian music, plays in the background.
Why do I find that particular bit of the film so intriguing, especially considering everything that occurs beforehand? Because I find myself wishing that, as beautiful as the countryside was, the camera would swing back into the train, head down to the dining car, and hook back up the brothers. Who, now freed from the film’s artifice and constraints, might actually be involved in a conversation that remotely resembles something human.
The key word here is “artifice.” Sure, all films are artificial constructs existing in their own filmic worlds if you want to get really technical, but few filmmakers today pursue artifice as thoroughly as Wes Anderson. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. Indeed, the artifice in Anderson’s movies is at once their greatest strength and their greatest liability.
When the artifice works, as it arguably does in films such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (my favorite Anderson film), the artifice of Wes Anderson’s films is actually freeing. We’re free from wondering how “realistic” his films are, and instead, free to contemplate how “truthful” they are. The themes that Anderson is trying to get across — the need for identity, community, forgiveness, and maturity — come across with crystal clarity.
But when it doesn’t work, and there are moments in all of Anderson’s films where it clearly doesn’t work, the artifice ends up feeling, well, artificial. I find that the suspension of disbelief required becomes too high, the film feels stretched and manipulated in ways that aren’t just unnatural. It becomes a hindrance to the story, to the “truth” that Anderson may be trying to convey.
And for my money, that happened time and again throughout The Darjeeling Limited. I say that knowing all of the usual disclaimers (e.g., Anderson’s films aren’t for everybody, you should know what you’re getting into with one of his films). But the fact remains that while there are numerous parts of the film that were touching, clever, and funny (in that Sahara-dry wit that Anderson has pursued his entire career), much of the film felt forced and clumsy even, with little grace.
When Owen Wilson’s character cuts away the bandages that cover his face and stares in the mirror alongside the his brothers, and comments “I’ve still got a lot of healing to do”, or when the brothers, who have been under the spectre of their father’s death for the entire film, cry out “Dad’s bags aren’t going to make it” as they race for their final train, you can practically hear the two-by-four that Anderson is using to beat his pet themes into your head as it comes whistling through the air.
It’s not bad filmmaking, as Anderson is clearly talented in this are, but I do find it to be grace-less filmmaking. I wouldn’t criticize Anderson for conjuring up a completely artificial world in his film — for starters, noone’s setpieces give me more joy than Anderson’s — but it is a weakness to pursue that so thoroughly that much of the life and love of the film is squeezed out, and those moments of life and love that do exist within the film seem shoehorned, stretched thin, shallow, and shockingly out of place.
On a sidenote, one criticism that I won’t level at Anderson is that he’s a racist.
It’s true that The Darjeeling Limited features scenes of the brothers indulging in Indian rituals while on their spiritual journey, and that some of those are the silliest scenes in the movie. But I never got the impression that Anderson was mocking those rituals, and by extension the Indian people. If anything, I felt he was mocking the brothers and their naiveté and foolishness, their desire to appropriate aspects of a culture that they don’t fully understand into their myopic, misguided quest for spiritual enlightenment.