(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited isn’t just underrated, it’s the best film he has made yet.)

Wes Anderson is more than a director – he’s a brand. Beyond enjoying name recognition, Anderson has an identifiable aesthetic rivaled perhaps only by Quentin Tarantino among indie filmmakers. A cottage industry of trailer remakes, Etsy shops and Instagram accounts has sprung up around his name. His films’ releases are the closest things to events outside of major studio tentpoles.

So how did the 10th anniversary of The Darjeeling Limited pass by last October with hardly any significant decade retrospective piece? Anderson, ever a reliable click-generator for film sites, should easily have inspired some online chatter encouraging reevaluation for better or for worse. Instead, Anderson’s 2007 film simply cemented its status as his most forgotten film. While not the worst (an honor sometimes reserved for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou since most people cut his debut Bottle Rocket some slack), few rank it among his iconic classics like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom.

Consider this a belated invitation to reconsider the movie. I maintain The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson’s best film, a perfect blend of style, story and sentiment. You can’t quote it as easily as Rushmore, but Anderson’s deadpan dialogue retains its snapiness. You can’t dress up as it characters for Halloween as easily as The Royal Tenenbaums, but the personalities are as vibrantly acidic as ever. You don’t have an ensemble of stars to fill the poster like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson goes deeper than ever on three brothers who are among his most completely realized cinematic creations.

Anderson Understands Brothers

There are very few screenwriters who can write effective dialogue for men, in part because they tend to use a lot less of it. There’s a particular economy in male-to-male communication, one that speaks loudest in attitudinal maneuvers, passive-aggressive gestures and mutually understood restraint. This goes doubly so for male relatives, especially brothers.

I can’t think of a film that pinpoints the way brothers operate in a space together quite as accurately as The Darjeeling Limited. So many brisk conversations and petty arguments transported me to similar situations with my own younger brother (and even male cousins closer in age to me). No matter your actual age, the thickness of blood ties tends to bring out the children inside of guys. The socially conditioned drive for competitiveness means you’re always jockeying with each other to occupy the pole position in the eyes of your parents.

Before Adrien Brody’s Peter muses that he was the favorite child of his deceased father to significant uproar, the estranged Whitman brothers quarrel constantly over their relative status. Owen Wilson’s Francis frequently scolds Peter for hoarding so much of their dad’s former possessions, from his giant prescription sunglasses to his razor. “I don’t want you to get the feeling that you’re better friends with him than we are,” Francis eventually declares. It’s a brutally honest statement that lays bare the jealousy undergirding so many sibling relationships. We pay lip service the notion that all children are equal in the eyes of their parents, but a society that teaches us that there are winners and losers in virtually every field of life conditions us to question this supposed tie.

Sibling rivalry generates a strange economy, too. The Whitmans jostle for favorite status with each other by disclosing things to one brother while the other is away. The secrets are not merely about the information – they’re about trading status. These moments never feel malicious because they’re the recourse of men who otherwise struggle to express the things gnawing away at their insides. Brotherly love lacks a concrete spoken language, so it often spills out through less glamorous channels like physicality and displays of brute force.

Peter’s comment about being the favorite son eventually spills over into an all-out brawl with Francis, requiring mediation in the form of pepper spray by their third brother, Jason Schwartzman’s Jack. Just before deploying the deterrent, Peter and Francis have taken their fight to the floor – but are also saying that they love each other. Jack remarks, “I love you too but I’m gonna mace you in the face!” It’s a moment of pure family dysfunction that never loses sight of what causes these fraternal skirmishes in the first place.

Anderson Shows His Most Nakedly Emotional Characters

If you poked the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, you’d hit nothing but air. They’re hollow by design, a trend that has grown particularly more pronounced in Wes Anderson’s work over time. The characters often draw comparisons to puppets or paper dolls, a nod to their artificiality that borders on surrealism. The environments in which they move around, impeccably crafted geometric sets with clean décor, enhance the sense that these are not actually people.

If you poked the Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, however, you could draw blood. They are the closest thing Wes Anderson has come to putting fully-fleshed humans on screen, and it certainly helps that they move through locations in India that feel and look entirely real. The Whitmans maintain the acerbic wit of Anderson’s most indelible creations, but they react to their surroundings authentically as opposed to the comedic over- or under-reactions that traditionally define his movies.

Wes Anderson’s films have never shied away from dark subject matter – family estrangement, midlife crises, the triumph of fascism over civilization – but he often treats them with a thin veil of irony. The obvious construction of characters, never pretending to masquerade as real people, has a distancing effect that allows viewers to observe their pains from an elevated position outside the narrative. And yet, Anderson has always complimented this stylistic proclivity with a contrasting sensibility of real sincerity for his characters.

The Darjeeling Limited is arguably Anderson’s least irony-steeped production. Its relatively narrow scope allows him to plumb the depths of his characters’ pain more deeply than ever. On their locomotive journey through India, the Whitman boys have many opportunities to face their respective traumas head-on.

Francis, the planner and machinist behind the “spiritual” journey to bring the brothers closers together again, receives a constant reminder of his fragility from the large bandages draped around his head following a motorcycle accident. He thinks he can magically repair every blemish in his life in the same way the bandages can reset his face back to normal. Francis plans an elaborate itinerary for he and his brothers to reunite with their long-lost mother, assuming that the endpoint will provide cathartic release for them all. But, to quote a popular cliché, healing is not a destination, it’s a journey. He comes to this realization by the end of the film as he unfurls his bandages in the mirror while his brothers look on, admitting, “I guess I’ve still got a lot of healing to do.”

Continue Reading Darjeeling Limited Defense >>

Pages: 1 2Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: