Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Strangers on a Train

More good stuff from 2007 (review spoiler!). Just out on DVD ...

The Darjeeling Limited (d. Wes Anderson)

Death is a sudden, random, arbitrary thing in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. It arrives on the hood of a taxi or at the jaws of an improbable tiger. Most importantly, it leaves the survivors in its wake, forced to try to understand the incomprehensible, figure out the unknowable. Death is easy for the dead, the period on their sentence. For those of us still shuffling on this mortal coil, not so easy.

One year after the aforementioned taxi takes their father away rather more permanently than taxis usually do, the three Whitman brothers board a train travelling through India. If they have a specific destination, it is never revealed. The journey's the thing, and eldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson) wants it to be a spiritual journey, full of holy places and praying and reconnecting with the two siblings he hasn't seen since their father's funeral. His brothers, Peter and Jack (Adrien Brody and co-writer Jason Schwartzman, respectively), are unsure about the plan, but go along anyway. It's not like either has a better idea.

The trip doesn't go exactly as Francis lays it out. It veers from crazy slapstick to unexpected tragedy. The boys inadvertently let a poisonous snake loose on the train and end up using a potent Indian pepper spray on each other. When their antics get them booted off the train, they ineffectually hurl stones at the departing caboose. Things turn serious when a young boy falls off a capsizing raft and dies just before Peter can save him. As they mourn, it's clear that though this might not be the one Francis had in mind, the Whitmans do get their spiritual journey.

Anderson shoots the film with his trademark love-it-or-hate-it style. Lots of static long shots, faces framed dead center directly addressing the camera, the occasional whip pan, carefully choreographed slow-motion. Here, the style echoes the emotional distance the brothers feel from one another and from death itself.

Each brother wears a kind of mask throughout most of the film. Francis has been in an accident and his face is heavily bandaged; he resembles a high-school wrestler. Peter wears his dead father's glasses even though the prescription is wrong for him. Jack sports a 70s porn-star droopy mustache. In a flashback, we see them without their disguises, at their most vulnerable. The masks are an effort to cope with loss, and the film is about the strange rituals and affectations we, the living, perform to deal with death.

Many of Anderson's familiar touches from previous (great) films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are on display here, over and above the stylistic veneer. His stock company is well-represented. Alongside Wilson and Schwartzman, appearances by Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, and Kumar Pallana make the whole thing feel, appropriately, like a family affair. The soundtrack sports an Andersonian mix of international sounds and 60s British Invasion obscurities. And thematically, ideas about family and absent parents have run through all of his work.

The Darjeeling Limited is a kind of consolidation of those themes. Perhaps it's Anderson's own spiritual journey we're witnessing. And if there is no destination, that's okay. The quest is the thing.

3 1/2 stars.

DVD Notes: The Darjeeling Limited DVD is very spare for an Anderson effort. His last three films have received a full, loving treatment from Criterion, but this one was released through a different studio and so far, no Criterion version has been announced. As it stands, the only real extra is a featurette behind the scenes. It's fun to watch Anderson direct; with his white suit and his scarf, he's lacking only a beret and a megaphone to be a director from 1922. An audio commentary would be welcome, but not essential.

The DVD also features the short film (subtitled as "Part One of The Darjeeling Limited") Hotel Chevalier. In it, Jason Schwartzman's Jack Whitman meets his lover (Natalie Portman) in the title hotel in France for a brief tryst before encountering his brothers in India. The short is a key part of the overall Darjeeling Limited experience and I'm not sure what purpose is served by separating it out this way. Whatever. It's here and you can -- and should -- play it right before the main film.

Hotel Chevalier -- 3 1/2 stars as well.

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