Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited -- Road-trip to Sibling Reconciliation

Like The Savages, The Darjeeling Limited deals with sibling issues of abandonment and favoritism. However, whereas The Savages was acerbic and steeped in reality, this movie is funnier but shallower, more low-key. As in previous movies (The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket), director Wes Anderson works with his own screenplay and his favorite actors: Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and a cameo from Bill Murray.

Owen Wilson plays Francis Whitman, the oldest of three brothers, all dealing with grief. He invites each of them to meet him on the Darjeeling Limited, to take a train journey across India. This is a road-trip on rails. Ostensibly a spiritual journey, it is also a time for them to rebond. After their father's death a year earlier, they have not seen each other, and are still experience sibling issues. Jack (Jason Schwartzman): "I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people." And that is one of the themes of the movie.

Wilson gives Francis the innate characteristics that define first-borns: order and control. Those of you who know or live with first-borns (and I am a first-born) understand first-hand the tensions that these bring. At one point, when an Indian waiter asks the three for their dinner orders, Francis orders for them all, not giving Jack or Peter (Adrian Brody) a chance to decide for themselves. This is a source of tension for them.

Further, Francis wants to be in control throughout. He keeps their passports for them. He has created daily, laminated itineraries for them. They must follow his carefully scheduled plan. (I can relate to this from my own childhood, when my dad organized family vacations in this manner, as well as my own tendency to impose my itinerary on my own growing family.)

Another source of tension is that of inheritance. Seeing Peter with their dad's sunglasses, he says "Are those Dad's sunglasses?" And later, "Is that Dad's razor?" Clearly, he expected to get these as firstborn.

As they journey through India, the home of a million deities, experiencing different religions, praying to different gods, it is interesting that they end up in a Christian church praying to the one, true God. This may be unintentional, but is a metaphor for real life. Many of us seek spiritual awakening and enlightenment, looking into many religions. But the truth that can set us free can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the middle of the movie, after the brothers try unsuccessfully to perform a ritual with three peacock feathers, Francis says "You guys didn't do it right. I asked if you read the instructions. You did it wrong. . . I tried my hardest. I don't know what to do." And this is a self-illuminating statement. We cannot make it right simply by trying harder, we cannot control others by our own efforts. We need to work together. We need to face life in mutual inter-dependence.

Not long afterwards, after being tossed from the train, they come upon three Indian boys trying to cross a rain-swollen rushing river. When the boys' raft capsized, the brothers leave belongings behind to jump into the rescue. Alas, only two boys are saved. It is the death of this stranger's child that proves the turning point. Coming face-to-face with death is cathartic. Life's inconveniences, sibling struggles are minor in comparison to death.

At the end of the movie, after they have accomplished, at least partially, the hidden agenda that Francis would not reveal to them, Francis cuts away the head bandages he has worn throughout the movie. In doing so he displays the scars and bruises of his earlier motorcycle accident. Seeing his still wounded face, he says, "I guess I've still got a lot of healing to do." But Peter, now reconciled to his brothers, replies "Gettin' there, though." The physical wounds are a metaphor for the emotional scars they all bear inside. Though the movie has no climax, like all good road-trip films, the resolution is in the character growth.

Symbolically, in running to catch the train to the airport at the end, a matching book-end to Bill Murray's cameo scene at the beginning, they let go of the baggage they have been carrying all movie-long. They have arrived at a level of self-understanding and sibling-reconciliation. Their emotional baggage has been released. What about us? Are we holding on to the baggage of our childhood? Are we carrying around a weight of unnecessary issues that is hindering our relational growth? Are we remaining unreconciled to family members? The Darjeeeling Limited challenges us to come to our personal catharsis, to take the journey to rebond with brothers or sisters, and become true friends.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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