Peter comes for the trip despite having a seven-and-a-half months pregnant wife waiting back at home. He’s terrified of the commitment and responsibility that comes with paternity. Peter remains in such denial about the impending birth that he neglects to share the news immediately – and even then, he only does so when Francis isn’t there. His fixation with holding onto items from his father suggests Peter still sees himself as someone else’s child too much to fathom having a child of his own. At a key juncture on their voyage, the Whitmans must jump in a river to save three Indian children who fell in attempting to cross. They each try to grab one, but Peter is ultimately unable to secure his before hitting the rapids. “I didn’t save mine,” he admits in defeat as he carries the limp body out of the water. The incident reinforces Peter’s deep fear that he will be unable to protect his own child.

Jack jades himself from feeling the pain of his father’s death and his breakup by spinning reality into fictions. He’s shockingly eager to share his writing with his brothers; Peter instantly recognizes himself in the recounting of the trip to their father’s funeral. Jack claims it’s fiction, fooling no one. Throughout the film, he’s unable to sort through his emotions logically as events happen, contradictorily phoning his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine while courting a stewardess on the train. By the end of the film, he’s still using the written word as an emotional release valve. But when Peter opines, “I like how mean you are,” Jack decides not to contradict the assertion and admit he is, in fact, writing about himself.

Each brother reaches a very different stage of acceptance and enlightenment, but the plot of The Darjeeling Limited sets them all down the same path again. Anderson invites the audience not merely to watch the Whitmans’ journey but take it with them. As The Kinks sing in “Strangers,” played over the Whitman brothers walking to the funeral of the Indian child, “Strangers on this road we are on / but we are not two, we are one.” It’s the closest thing Wes Anderson has done to a project inviting identification, rather than just observation.

Anderson Connects Style to Story

Think of a quintessential Wes Anderson shot. It probably involves some kind of long tracking shot on a dolly through a symmetrical set. These shots showcase Anderson’s visual bravura and are far more fun to watch than a chopped-up journey from Point A to Point B. In a larger sense, they track continuity through a space.

The Darjeeling Limited features Wes Anderson’s best tracking shot, in part because it serves as the emotional peak of the film and connects to its larger themes. It occurs when the Whitman brothers show up unannounced at the Indian convent where their mother Patricia (Angelica Huston) now works as a nun. After their initial attempts at reconciliation fail, she proposes something a little more unconventional. “Maybe we could express ourselves more fully if we say it without words,” Patricia suggests.

The four of them sit in a circle on the floor, communicating without talking. The camera starts in a close-up on Patricia, then pans around the room to catch each of her sons in varying states of contemplation over everything that led them to this moment. The camera then swings back to Patricia, who has let a bit of a grin slip onto her face.

Anderson then cuts to the children in the care of the convent and begins another pan. This one, however, defies spatial logic. As the camera moves to the right, it jumps from the convent back to the train, showing the stewardess in her living quarters. Then it moves to a steward who butted heads with the Whitmans on the train. Then the shot breaks free of actually depicting people on a train altogether but still tracks as if the camera is moving car to car. We see the two surviving Indian children in the village, Peter’s pregnant wife, an old man from the train, Francis’ beleaguered assistant, Jack’s ex-girlfriend, a businessman who Peter cuts off in the film’s opening scene – and finally, a tiger that Patricia mentioned is terrorizing the neighborhood.

Beyond the crew members of the Darjeeling Limited (the train that supplies the film with its title), none of these people are literally on a train. Yet, by the motion out the windows in each locale, it’s made to look like wherever they are chugs forward like a locomotive. Anderson is literalizing the train metaphor in this tracking shot, and in doing so, he connects all the characters in the Whitmans’ orbit to their journey. All these people are on their own train ride trying to figure out their direction in life. The continuity is not merely special in this tracking shot – it’s spiritual. And the final piece of the shot, the tiger, represents the grim fate that awaits us all.

We are all on a train moving through life towards our eventual death, suggests Wes Anderson in The Darjeeling Limited. In the meantime, why not try to understand the feelings and needs of our fellow passengers? With both his words on the page and images on the screen, Anderson leaves us better equipped to empathize and relate with those around us.

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