Wes Anderson doesn't stray too far afield with "The Darjeeling Limited," but judging by his latest film's considerable merits, do we really want him to? Even a ten-year-old could point out the aesthetic and narrative similarities between Anderson's films, so consistently do they deploy the same visual tricks and emotional turnarounds, yet to observe "The Darjeeling Limited" from a simple evaluative distance would deny the immersive pleasures therein. Asking Anderson to change (or "grow," as some critics would call it) ignores everything that's right with the artistic fluidity from "Bottle Rocket" to here. If "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" seemed too mechanical, too locked-in to its director's gambits, then with "Darjeeling" Anderson has found a way to overcome his own limitations without forgoing his expected style.
Here, we still have vaguely unhappy, comically morose family members trying to reconnect while boxed into Anderson's comic panel-like set-ups. Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman return, as brothers Francis and Jack, embarking on a soul-searching train voyage through India, and if their performances initially feel entirely too comfortable, as entrenched as these actors are in Anderson's constrictive sensibilities, then the addition of Anderson first-timer Adrien Brody, as the third (and... tallest) brother, Jack, has freed them. Whereas Wilson's faux earnest deadpan and Schwartzman's bruised puppy-dog gestures (as an actor, he's best when looking directly into the camera, imploring at an off-screen female object of desire) have received workouts before, Brody's elongated, sad-eyed interiority injects genuine vitality into the film.
Brody takes to Anderson's world of almost one-liners and clipped emotional climaxes like a duck to water, while Anderson, who's prone to using actors as spectacle, seems to enjoy Brody's unconventional physicality. In an early scene, Anderson giddily shoots Brody running in slow motion to catch a train pulling away from the station, his lanky limbs flying with gazelle-like grace; set to the Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow," it's a gorgeous distillation of Anderson's humane yet detached view, a true human, truly in motion.
"The Darjeeling Limited"'s visual precision hardly ends there, as Anderson and his crew, including cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg, serve up a nearly nonstop display of elegant compositions (with the train compartments' narrow, horizontal spaces, Anderson can indulge in his preference for smooth camera pans), while editor Andrew Weisblum's emphasizing cuts to expressive colors and angles endlessly delight. The script, this time by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola, improves upon "Life Aquatic"'s insistent deadpan with a smart if unimposing look at brotherhood: they haven't seen each other in over a year, since their father's death, and even if at times the siblings' rivalries seem broadly illustrated (as expected), they seem less like telegraphed conflicts than the product of simmering mutual distrust. And the expected emotional shift to darker territory, which comes earlier than in other Anderson films, while a flagrant contrivance, brings about some of the most wistful, even transcendent passages of the director's career, and which make plausible the transformative powers of the brothers' journey.
Anderson's view of India is, necessarily, of the travelogue variety, and its focus on interiors rather than exteriors limits the film in this sense. Yet Anderson's dispassionate address translates well to the tenor of tourism: "Wow, right?" Wilson mildly exclaims upon exiting a shrine, and his noticeable lack of fervor speaks well to the difficulty of achieving authentic spiritual enlightenment while passing through foreign cities as a stranger. It's also a perfectly Wes Anderson line: present yet emotionally distant, trying to live in the moment, even when it's all too much.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]