‘The Darjeeling Limited’: A New Wanderers’ Classic?
Travel Blog • Elisabeth Eaves • 10.09.07 | 11:53 AM ET
Hollywood rarely produces a great travel film. It endlessly mines the road trip for material but doesn’t get at the actual experience of travel, the drama of which, for most of us, involves neither bad guys nor tragic endings, but rather logistical snafus and the occasional small epiphany. So it was with trepidation that I approached director Wes Anderson’s new movie The Darjeeling Limited, about three bumbling brothers on a train trip through India. By the end, though, I wanted to join the protagonists as they ran, yet again, for the train. “The Darjeeling Limited” is a fresh and funny lesson in that most ancient piece of travel wisdom—it’s about the journey, stupid, not the destination.
From the outset, the film mercilessly mocks the Westerner-on-a-spiritual-quest genre. Big brother Francis, played by Owen Wilson with his head in a bandage, has bullied his estranged younger siblings into taking the trip. They tote piles of monogrammed leather luggage and travel in a first-class compartment. To make sure they get maximum spiritual value, Francis has his assistant—who travels second-class—print up detailed laminated itineraries every day.
Arriving at their first shrine, one of the “holiest places in the world,” the boys get off the train and immediately start shopping. When they finally make it to the altar, they bicker. And when they later find themselves part of a family tragedy in a tiny rural village, Francis continues to fret that his well-organized spiritual journey has gotten off schedule.
The parody, though, soon evolves into something more touching. For all the brothers’ idiotic behavior—they fight with each other and binge on cough syrup—there’s something endearing about these guys, who, as it turns out, are all wrangling with suppressed grief of their own.
The movie is set in an India that’s not exactly India, just as Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” was set in a not-quite-right Manhattan. The super-saturated chartreuse, turquoise and crimson of “The Darjeeling Limited” make great eye candy, but are too bright to be real. Modern touches—like a reappearing iPod and a sexually liberated cabin attendant—clash with dense, baroque décor, further signaling that we’re a few degrees off of reality. The train, at one point, gets lost in a desert.
The unreal setting serves as a reminder that the experience of travel is not about a specific place. Hyper-real shots of Thai islands, like the ones in the backpacker thriller “The Beach,” are beautiful, but not half as moving as the acting and dialogue in Anderson’s fantasy landscape. Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” about a chance meeting in Vienna, and Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnol, about year-abroad students in Barcelona, are two of my favorite travel movies. “The Darjeeling Limited,” like them, is about people thrust together in strange places. Nothing much happens, but when the story is over, everything has changed.
One of the best lines in a movie with many to choose from is, “Thanks for using me.” I won’t give away the details, but it’s spoken with sincerity and accepted graciously. When we travel, we’re always using the people and places we come across to heal our wounds, teach us something, or help us figure out just what it is we want. Done in a spirit of give and take, that’s not such a bad thing: As often as not, we’re being used too. We all need a little strangeness to help us figure out what matters, and the brothers in “The Darjeeling Limited” eventually do.