THE POWER OF SURRENDERING THE POWER - Kyle Meyers on THE DARJEELING LIMITED
Each of Wes Anderson’s short & feature length films since 1994 (including his newly released Isle of Dogs) follow characters who inevitably experience failure & forgiveness. Anderson seems incompatible with cynicism, though not an idealist either. He unpretentiously "knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness” says Martin Scorsese. Anderson’s fifth film, “The Darjeeling Limited”, was released in 2007 amidst a harsh & abrasive “war on terror” environment that produced several masterpieces that same year. Being critically dismissed in favor of films portraying serial killers and greedy psychopaths, there seemed minimal margin for Anderson’s lack of pessimism. His film about three wealthy, self-indulgent brothers traveling across India on a spiritual journey appeared politically obstinate. To that end, however, I believe it was significantly subversive. By shedding a humane light on a microcosm of white male narcissism (as portrayed by regular players Owen Wilson & Jason Schwartzman with newcomer Adrien Brody), Anderson subsequently allows for the possibility of transformation. He paints a graceful picture of personality disorder, remaining compassionate about how we heal these (not-so-hidden) emotional wounds infected with fear & shame.
The first striking example of wounding in The Darjeeling Limited is found in the prologue (Hotel Chevalier), when Natalie Portman's naked body reveals a variety of dark bruises that deter us away from sexualizing her character. Wes creates for us an uncomfortable invitation to humanize her by recognizing the un-named suffering that brought her to Paris to visit her ex-boyfriend Jack (Jason Schwartzman). While initiating sexual intimacy, they wrestle through their codependency: "If we f*ck, I'm gonna feel like sh*t tomorrow." In the end, they opt to not exploit one another to cope with their loneliness. (How often does that happen in movies?) Having conjured up some dignity, they move from the 'inside-out' (from their room to the balcony), no longer needing to hide from the larger world around them.
Jack will write this experience into a short story that he will later share with his brothers. He is sure to clarify it as 'fiction', which is his way of communicating about himself minus vulnerability. This basically sums up the entire first half of the film. Fear, mistrust, dishonesty, and pain killers cover up an underlying need to belong, to feel known. Oldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson) is humorously controlling, his face covered in bandages. He has engineered this 'spiritual journey', which for the duration of the train ride, is nothing more than a tourist adventure complete with laminated itineraries and scheduled temple stops. As tension increases and things begin to unravel between the brothers, the illusion of control is symbolically & literally shattered as two mysterious absurdities happen. First, the train itself gets lost. ("How can a train be lost? It's on rails." asks Jack) Second, a deadly poisonous snake bought by Peter (Adrien Brody), escapes it's lock box, endangering the passengers. Having been blamed for this strange phenomenon (seemingly beyond their control), their privileges are revoked. They are kicked off the train and cast out ‘into the wild’ with all their luggage.
Lost in the desert without an itinerary, they are left to deal with life on life's terms. What follows is one of the most sacramental (which means ‘preparing us for grace’) sequences in cinema history. The Whitman brothers encounter a set of young Indian brothers crossing intense rapids on a small river. Francis passes judgement on the boys ("look at these A-holes") for their lack of safety, and sure enough they are in trouble. The raft pulley system snaps in the water, and the young boys are left clinging to the overturned raft in the harsh current. The Whitmans drop all their 'baggage' to jump in and rescue the boys. (This is the first we have seen of them get beyond their petty narcissism, which seems linked to 'the things they carry') Francis and Jack are able to get two of the boys safely to the edge, but Peter finds the other tangled in the rope. In an effort to free him, something breaks and the two of them are sent down stream into a waterfall. A loud crack is followed with silence as the others run to find them. Peter emerges (frightened, traumatized) with the child covered in blood saying, "He's dead. He's dead...I didn't save mine". As they gather, they acutely recognize how far beyond their normal boundaries & limitations they have come. We see that their true Spiritual Journey has begun.
The remaining Indian brothers lead the Whitmans back to their village, where Peter releases the flaccid child into the arms of his father. Despite the trauma, the village welcomes the Whitman brothers with gracious hospitality, caring for and feeding them. This whole event is particularly exceptional for Peter because it forced him to confront a fundamental fear within himself. Earlier we learned that his wife Alice is pregnant. This is distressing for him because he has always assumed divorce was inevitable (part of his childhood experience), though he admits to being in love with her. This reality of fatherhood has thrown him into an existential crisis, which until recently has looked like avoidance. But now we witness a post-trauma Peter timidly holding an infant child on his lap. He is sitting in view of the bereaved Indian father, who's engaged in an intimate ritual, soaking & massaging his son's lifeless body with oil. These actions reflect a compassion & empathy that Peter has likely never experienced. Like Kurosawa's 'Dreams', grief here is practical, engaged, hospitable, and contemplative. This old, traditional (death is part of life) way-of-being seems more grounded on one hand, less fearful & anxious on the other. The spiritual profundity seems almost inadvertent. Peter is being transformed by it, and something new is being born.
The following funeral sequence becomes a rite-of-passage for the Brothers, scored by The Kinks singing “Strangers on this road we are on...We are not two we are one.” It’s quite revealing in it’s tender simplicity. Off the rails now completely, the Whitmans truly learn to trust one another. No longer a slave to "their absence of guilt but crushing burden of shame" (Richard Brody), they each begin the process of reconciling the damage caused by their wounding. As Francis later removes his bandages, he states, "I guess I've still got a lot of healing to do". It’s a perfect metaphor for those of us (like myself) who prefer control to vulnerability. Our internal wounds are not always so obvious, but left unattended they cause us to seek power & dominance over our environment. This might suppress our anxiety, but often blinds us to the wounds of others, becoming a barrier to empathy & connection (something we ourselves crave). Men especially (but not exclusively) have historically struggled in this way. Wes Anderson knows this well, courageously choosing to cultivate a cinematic universe where individuals like Francis, Peter, and Jack are willing to look in the mirror, connect with something larger than themselves, and journey towards reconciliation. This is a unique & worthy narrative accomplishment for a popular American filmmaker of the last two decades. On a silver screen, true light.
Kyle P Meyers is a husband, father, and Marriage & Family Therapist, living in Columbus, OH. He practices self-care by going to the movies and meeting with friends at the local Drafthouse for film/life discussions. Click here to find him.