Usually I’d fill this space with some collection of observations about the film or the review, but I’m highly distracted today. So I’ll stick with just the older words.
More than any other current director I can think of, Wes Anderson is crafting a series of films so distinctive, so stylistic unified and, yes, so redundant that it sometimes seems as if he’s making one big movie, one wide-ranging artistic statement, spread across a batch of two hour chunks. For example, there may be a way intrinsic to this film itself to interpret the opening featuring Bill Murray as the generically-named “The Businessman” running after a departing train called The Darjeeling Limited only to watch it accelerate beyond his ability to catch up just as Adrien Brody, gangly legs pumping in slow-motion, charges past to clamber onto it. It’s somehow more satisfying, though, to view it as a little fake-out with Anderson’s primary acting muse surprisingly left behind as a total newcomer to the troupe jumps aboard the forward moving storyline, the train and the film significantly sharing the same title. It becomes an explicit transfer of focus from Anderson’s previous film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which featured Murray in the title role. The Darjeeling Limited even makes this sensation more explicit with the recent inclusion of the short Hotel Chevalier with all screenings. Anderson and the studio may have initially felt it was inessential, but removing it would be like reading a novel after arbitrarily disregarding the first chapter. The different components of Anderson’s work here have a clear, vital through line. This winds up serving as yet another indicator of how connected all of his work feels.
One problem with this–and there are a few, to be sure–is that Anderson is doing more than skirting self-parody. He’s beginning to reach the point where his entire oeuvre is some precious thing held up for admiration rather than work that hits you in the mind and heart the way the best films do, the way that his own Rushmore did. Darjeeling is amusing and interesting enough, but it’s rarely compelling. The themes feel familiar, the arch tone too distancing. With little to no inclination to upend his standard methodology, Anderson is finally running the risk of quirking himself into insignificance.
In fact, the most exciting moments in Darjeeling are those that feel most detached from the well-established Wes-iverse. When the three troubled brothers central to the film’s story reach arguably the lowest point in their spiritual pilgrimage across India, the film suddenly shifts to a flashback sequence showing where this trio was at almost exactly a year earlier. It is, to my recollection, the first time Anderson has used a flashback as a vital, integral piece of storytelling, letting it live and breathe on its own and import something to the viewer rather than set it up as some sort of cute insert (think back to The Royal Tenenbaums which is nearly smothered in its infancy as these moments pile up in the first portion of the film). Here the scene has bite and is brimming with fierce emotion. It is effectively jarring in the context of this film, contrasting sharply with the wounded characters we’ve been spending time with, holding the world dispassionately away. Held against the entirety of Anderson’s work, it is finally, triumphantly different, perhaps hinting that he can create a film that’s not rigid with unyielding precision and chilled by judicious use of slow-motion and other filmmaking tropes that serve as a constant reminder that all the raw emotions that the characters exhibit onscreen aren’t actually that painful because, after all, it’s only a movie.
Anderson’s skill and expertise at crafting visual images should be well-established to anyone who views his films, but it’s beginning to have a lulling quality. Darjeeling, with it’s tentative forays into potent surprises and more grounded moments, may be a portent that this ongoing creation of his is beginning to transform. Anderson has started the train moving down the right track. Now he just has to catch it.