Bright Lights Film Journal

“Filled with Ritual”: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited

“[B]ecause the story is filled with ritual and religion, we were always going into temples. I was particularly obsessed with participating in any religious ceremonies I could get involved with.” — Wes Anderson, on the making of The Darjeeling Limited

Ritual is, first and foremost, a doing, but it is also imagined. Many years ago, Ronald Grimes, in Reading, Writing, and Ritualizing, explored what he called “fictive ritual, ritual as imagined, constructed, made up.”1 Grimes’s argument in that book is simple: “fictive worlds are sanctuaries in which one can fruitfully reimagine ritual,”2 and he called on students of ritual to tend to the ways in which ritual is imagined in our arts and popular culture. This article represents an effort to answer that call, focusing on the ritual dimensions of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited.

Anderson has written, produced, and directed six feature-length films, beginning with Bottle Rocket in 1996 and, most recently, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, nominated for an Oscar in 2010. In between are Rushmore, which many critics name as one of the best films of the 1990s, The Royal Tennenbaums — the screenplay, co-written with friend Owen Wilson, was nominated for an Oscar — and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a critical and box office disappointment but central to Anderson’s oeuvre and a successful DVD release. In 2007, Anderson directed The Darjeeling Limited.

Darjeeling is a road trip movie. The film’s ritual background is pilgrimage, with its promise or fantasy of healing and communitas. The Whitman brothers, Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman (played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman), come together in India for, as the elder brother Francis puts it, a “spiritual journey.” Travelling by train the brothers are to visit some of India’s significant religious sites in the hopes that the journey will, again according to Francis, allow them “to become brothers again, like we used to be.” The trip is conceived by Francis as an overt attempt to ritualize in service of healing wounds, which include the death of the father a year earlier and, as we come to learn, the father’s botched funeral in which, among other things, the widow and boys’ mother (played by Anjelica Huston) failed to make an appearance.

In the opening scenes, not having seen one another for a year, the three exhibit a brief minute or two of brotherly love as they reunite on board the Darjeeling Limited. But before long they begin to bicker, and the sibling rivalries and irritants, coupled with the troubles each of the brothers brings to the trip — Francis, we eventually learn, is recovering from a failed suicide attempt; Peter is ambivalent about his marriage and looming fatherhood; Jack is clearly unhappy and morose, stuck in an unhealthy, obsessive relationship — threaten to derail the journey.

The boys are wounded, Francis literally so, his head weirdly bandaged from his deliberately having crashed his car in the attempt to do himself in. With the brothers standing together, toward the end of the film, gazing into a mirror in a railway station bathroom, Francis unwraps his head and, as the three study the battered face, comments:

“I guess I still have some more healing to do.”

Jack: “You are getting there, though.”

Peter: “Anyway, definitely going to add a lot of character to you.”

Anderson paints a portrait of three somewhat spoiled, quirky adults trying to find their way in a world apparently devoid of meaning. And “even,” as one critic writes, “when we learn bits and pieces of their history — their father is dead; their mother” missed the funeral and “ran off to become a nun”; they have been variously disappointed in love and friendship — [even when we learn all this] the sorrow [at the heart of the film] is never traced to its source. Nor is it ever entirely banished.”3 Sorrow runs deep. Sorrow is a constituent element of the world the three brothers have inherited, as much as of the world they have variously created.

One of the tropes in the film is the brothers hauling around too much expensive luggage, or rather, baggage — their father’s luggage/baggage, to be precise. By the end of the film they are able to cast off these burdensome suitcases and jump back on to the train of life. Though the message is hard to miss and certainly a cliché — the brothers need to let go of their “baggage” — Anderson’s ironic glance casts a shadow on processes of affluent white male ritualizing represented by the brothers’ efforts to bond and heal on a “spiritual” journey through India. There is no neat healing of the wounds they carry; the best that can be said is that they are “getting there.” In spite of tossing the baggage at the end and jumping back on board, the sorrow that haunts the film remains, and it is hard to look at the bandaged face of Francis Whitman without thinking about Owen Wilson’s actual suicide attempt, which occurred just a few months after shooting ended, just prior to the film’s release. In Darjeeling, the boundary between life and art is porous.

Fans and critics of Anderson’s work refer to something called “Wes’s World.” “Welcome all,” writes a reviewer of Darjeeling, “to ‘Wes’s World.’ a tight knit group of friends and collaborators that closely resembles a vaudevillian family, a traveling troupe of players, writers, producers, and directors. Director Wes Anderson is the vertex, the hub that all others gravitate toward and hover around. On the strength of just five films in ten years, Anderson has created a cinematic niche, a new genre — the ‘Wes Anderson Film.'”4 In Wes’s World we find a number of persistent themes and a recognizable cinematic style: sibling rivalries; absent fathers and mothers; wayward, oddball families; feelings of meaninglessness, suicide attempts or ideation; narrative montage and mise-en-scène; slow-motion shots overdubbed with alternative music; a shooting style that calls attention to itself; a slow pacing; a rather static, photographic camera; a mood both comical and dark; and a coterie of actors who persistently inhabit Anderson’s films: Owen Wilson, a longtime friend and collaborator, Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman — a tragicomic fraternity of friends and colleagues somewhat as peculiar as the characters they play. If ritual is bound up with the rhythm of repetition, ritual is a tacit force informing Anderson’s work. He returns, again and again, to a consistent style, and to work and rework the prima materia of family strife, angst, and a sorrow without a source. Form and content conspire in reflecting and projecting Wes’s World.

“Part of the pleasure of watching [The Darjeeling Limited]”, writes a critic “comes from never knowing quite what will happen next. Not that everything that happens is pleasant. Wes Anderson’s world may be a place of wonder and caprice, but it is also a realm of melancholy and frustration . . . the Whitman boys may seem happy-go-lucky, but on closer inspection they don’t look very happy at all.”5 Here, we touch the paradigmatic force of Anderson’s work: it resonates with a spiritual malaise, a frustrated appetite for meaning, a taste for life’s absurdities, and a spiritual emptiness characteristic of contemporary culture. Another critic writes of Darjeeling: “the 38-year-old director’s movies display a style so distinct as to be recognizable within a few dozen frames . . . His movies are fables of exaggerated innocence, existing in a world of their own. But despite their humor and whimsy, they are pervaded by an aimless melancholy.”6Whimsy and aimless melancholy define the mood of Wes’s World. With the sacred fractured and scattered, as thinkers such as Mircea Eliade and Victor Turner suggest, modern religious life entails a sorrowful meandering in the hopes of contacting the liminiod7 that may open-up onto the a glimpse of the sacred.

If this were all Anderson offered, whimsy and melancholy, it is unlikely that Wes’s World would have struck a chord with moviegoers. In his A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke takes up the relation between rhetoric and identification, in order to round out and extend the traditional emphasis on the relation between rhetoric and persuasion. “We need never deny,” Burke writes

the presence of strife, enmity, factions, as a characteristic motive of rhetorical expression. We need not close our eyes to their almost tyrannous ubiquity in human relations; we can be on the alert always to see how such temptations to strife are implicit in the institutions that condition human relationships; yet we can at the same time always look beyond this order, to the principle of identification in general, a terministic choice justified by the facts that the identifications in the order of love are also characteristic of rhetorical expression.

Burke suggest that a “doctrine of consubstantiality . . . may be necessary to any way of life.”8 Two people are different, and yet they may identify with one another; an individual is unique, yet also, in Burke’s language, consubstantial; separate and yet joined. Anderson’s films are indeed rife with strife and enmity, and yet they evoke something beyond this “tyrannous” order. His filmic rhetoric and ritualized style evokes, alongside the whimsy, melancholy, and farce, identifications in the order of love.

The lyrical, imagistic, and thematic refrain of Darjeeling is carried by a line in the refrain from the Kinks song “Strangers,” which figures heavily in the soundtrack: “Strangers on this road we are on / We are not two, we are one.”

A concise image of Burke’s “identifications in the order of love,” this is the transformation the brothers seek: we are not two (or three or four or more), we are one.

And this “we” covers the range of consubstantial relatedness, from the familial to the social to the cosmic. Near the end of the film, we see a montage of shots of characters the brothers have encountered on their journey (both their life’s journey and the narrower, train journey in India); some sit on The Darjeeling Limited, another sits on an airplane, another in a house; yet another in a hotel room. But the montage is constructed so that each individual appears to be sitting in compartments of a single, moving train. I can identify with you because we are on the same train. An image that can serve as a ground for both the separateness and relatedness of our experience transcends both; clearly, Anderson employs the train journey as a metaphor for this transcendent ground.

In fiction, how are processes of transformation concretized? One way is through deploying metaphors and motifs of process and transformation. Another way is to deal in variations of the ultimate transformation, Life and Death: birth, death, being reborn, dying, killing. Anderson uses both methods in Darjeeling. The film is a “road trip,” and matters of death and birth are thematically and dramatically central. A third way of concretizing transformation is through ritual and ritual motifs, since many rites (in particular rites of passage and other liminal rites like pilgrimage) traffic in transformation: they turn girls into women, the deceased into ancestors, the sick into the healed, individuals into community, the single into the wed, two into one.

In the world of the film, the brothers ritualize: they repeatedly visit temples and shrines to pray and leave offerings; they repeatedly, awkwardly, and, until their final effort, unsuccessfully ritualize movement, gestures, and words around a set of feathers given to Francis by a “guru.” Eventually finding their mother, they pray together at dusk in the courtyard monastery. Part of their journey, a turning point in the film, is their stumbling, having been kicked off the train for bad behavior, upon an accident. Pushing and pulling their heavy suitcases, the three brothers see three young, Indian brothers being washed down a river, headed for the rocks. The metaphors begin to pile up. Francis and Jack save their child; Peter fails. They deliver the shaken children and the dead body to the village and the boy’s father. They are invited to stay for the funeral, and in the midst of their participating in this unexpected funeral, we flash back to the fiasco of their father’s funeral.

Running late for a canned funeral parlor affair, the brothers stop at the garage where the father’s car awaits repair and frantically try to jump start it, in order to drive it to the funeral; a pathetic attempt to metaphorically resurrect the body of the father. What follows is a crazed, surreal scene that ends with the tired, frustrated brothers piling back into the limo; then we are back in India. The contrast between the two funerals is stark. The Indian funeral is tactile, with the hands on the body; grief is openly expressed; colors are vibrant; gestures are readily at hand; the world has stilled. The atmosphere surrounding the father’s funeral — we never do see the actual event — is dark; emotions are internalized and bottled; the process commoditized; the attempt to ritualize in the garage stymied by ineptitude of the brothers and the ticking of the funeral parlor clock.

Anderson knows one thing that students of ritual know — rites tend to piggyback on one another. In the Whitman brothers’ case, the young boy’s funeral in India does the work of mourning inadequately performed at the father’s funeral. One effect of the brothers’ participation in the Indian funeral seems to be an awareness of the hopelessness in the inept scene they acted out in the garage. The flashback is not just for the audience, but part of the brothers’ experience of the Indian funeral. As they ride together to the funeral in a tuk-tuk, they recall the earlier limo ride; as they participate in India, they remember and reflect on their father’s botched funeral. The Indian funeral exposes the obvious: the limits of a commercial mortuary culture that is radically disembodied and ethereal, and how a half-baked, unreflective, unpracticed attempt to take control and actually participate in a death rite emerges when those in mourning are turned into a kind of audience. The father’s funeral left unfinished business; that lack was the impetus for the “spiritual” journey.

The desire for transformation depicted in the film is frustrated by the very will that actively seeks its own healing. The brothers, we might suggest, were not in need of a “spiritual journey” but a decent funeral, and they stumbled across one. They are brought to a halt by the Indian funeral; a rhythm beyond their own making takes charge, and they must yield and follow the course of events that unfold. No longer do they try to create a container in which their experience can be distilled and repackaged; rather, they are contained and carried. Ronald Grimes distinguishes between “the deed” and “the rhythm” of ritual. The deed is driven by will, desire, and the heroic effort to illustrate, create, or perform a paradigmatic act. The rhythm is “the necessity to dance in eddies not of one’s own making.”9 This is what the film is about, dancing in eddies not of one’s own making, and in more ways than one.

I hesitate to speak of Darjeeling as “liminal” film. The word is tired and worn. But, the notion and experience of liminality is central to Darjeeling. “Liminality,” writes Victory Turner, “can perhaps be described as a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structure, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to and anticipating postliminal existence.” Certainly the brothers’ train journey is informed by this sense of creating a “fructile chaos.”10 Moreover, the process of filmmaking was, we learn from interviews, grounded in ideas and sentiments that can be described as liminal.

The screenplay was written by Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola (Schwartzman’s cousin) during a train trip from Paris to and then through India. Wes Anderson comments on the process:

We planned a train journey, because we wanted to see what that was like. But we went there for two main reasons: So I could introduce those guys to India, and because we needed to write somewhere. So I thought this would be a good way to keep us together. Most of our time on that trip was spent writing, sitting in one room or another working on our story. On that trip, we did things we normally might not have done, because we were trying to act out the story to some degree. So in situations where we might have been more reserved, because the story is filled with ritual and religion, we were always going into temples. I was particularly obsessed with participating in any religious ceremonies I could get involved with. We joined a lot of groups that I would normally be too shy to get involved with, but India is a place where often people make you feel very welcome. That colored that trip.11

Anderson devised the trip in part because, as Jason Schwartzman noted, he was in “need of an experience” and seeking out an “adventure.” Anderson was, in Schwartzman’s words, “speaking in ways that… seemed to be welcoming or encouraging chaos and spontaneity in an exciting way.”12

The spatial compression and antistructure of creating, acting, and shooting on a train in a foreign country seems to have created a liminal kind of experience for this troupe of movie-makers. Jason Schwartzman comments, during an interview at the New York Film Festival:

A big difference with this movie is that every morning we would get on the train, and go into the little small train compartment and we would never leave. And there were no trailers, there were no places for us to go. We just spent every day together. I spent more minutes with these three actors than I’ve ever spent with any other actors in my life. And it was the first set too if you were late to set, the set might not be there in the morning, because it leaves.

Adrian Brody offered this observation on the process:

I grew up here in New York, and I thought New York was a very unpredictable place. But you get to India and it’s a different story . . . you really realize the precariousness of life and the preciousness of life there. And it is a story of three brothers reconnecting and I really had a similar journey with everyone up here [on stage]. When I watch the film I am reliving my adventures with Jason, Wes, and Owen. I feel a closer connection with my experiences as a character and a person. There are more parallels than I normally feel with roles that I’m less similar to. For me it was a real, a profound experience that I truly cherish.13

In interviews, the members of Wes’s gang repeatedly speak about the very personal nature of the film.

The desire of the Whitman brothers to have an experience, to say yes to everything (which, according to Jason Schwartzman, was Anderson’s refrain during their writing journey), to bond, create, and heal, mirrors the process of filmmaking. “I love the chaos that you feel when you are India,” says Wes Anderson,

but a lot of making a movie is about order. You make a schedule, and you try to stick to it, and the better you plan, the better off you are in the end, in most cases. But our approach with this movie was very much that whatever went wrong, we were going to make that part of our story. If the hut was brown, and we left for the evening, and when we came back, the hut was painted blue with flowers all over it because somebody thought that it would be a good idea, that’s the way we were going to use it in the story. That happened. And that is the sort of thing that happens all the time. The bumps in the road can be so peculiar, and that was what we wanted the movie to be about.14

The Whitman brothers’ willful attempt to have an experience was stopped in its tracks by the accident and funeral they encounter on the road. A few months after shooting, before the final cutting of the film, Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt made the fictive world of the film all too real. There is a genre of ritual that generates its efficacy from risk and danger. Liminality is risky business; creating a liminal space, embracing chaos in order to generate an experience that can hold the melancholic demons at bay, is a potentially dangerous game. Darjeeling is not simply a film about ritual, but rather a highly ritualized film, and ritual can be an efficacious activity.

Perhaps at the end of the journey of The Darjeeling Limited Anderson was able to drop his baggage. His next work, Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated film based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, had its theatrewide release on November 13, 2009. (In production is My Best Friend, a remake of a 2006 French comedy.) Fantastic Mr. Fox marks a departure of sorts for Anderson. Although the themes and style are not entirely foreign to his oeuvre, there is a lighter touch, and the whimsy of the film is not overwhelmed by the melancholy. If Wes’s World is littered with baggage, the making of the films, like the Whitmans’ train trip where they incessantly haul around their baggage, has perhaps led Anderson to recognize of the need to let go of themes and mood that have helped create the very world that bears his name. Time will tell.

  1. Ronald L. Grimes, Reading, Writing, and Ritualizing: Ritual in Fictive, Liturgical, and Public Spaces, Portland, OR: Pastoral Press, 1995, 129. []
  2. Grimes, 131. []
  3. A. O. Scott, “Brothers and Their Baggage, In India,” New York Times, September 28, 2007. http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/09/28/movies/28darj.html []
  4. Ron Booth, “The Darjeeling Limited: Insightseeing by Rail,” The Tacoma Film Club, November 20, 2007.http://tacomafilmclubannex.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/darjeeling-limited-is-now-open-for-discussion/. Another reviewer writes that Anderson has created a unique cinematic landscape, one “so distinct that certain clothes, music, expressions and cleverly awkward situations in the real world can be dubbed as being ‘very Wes Anderson.'” Arnaud Desplechin, “Wes Anderson,” Interview, no date. http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/wes-anderson/. Similarly, Joseph Aisenberg titled his review essay on The Darjeeling Limited, “Wes’s World: Riding Wes Anderson’s Vision Limited,” Bright Lights Film Journal, 59 (2008), http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/59/59wesanderson.php. []
  5. Scott, “Brothers and their Baggage.” []
  6. By Jake Coyle, AP Entertainment Writerhttp://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/2007-10-04-1101698713_x.htm []
  7. Victor Turner was keen to explore ritual forms that tend to run counter to status-quo values, hierarchical norms, everyday duties and roles. There is a relation, suggests Turner, between the norms and rules of everyday life (social structure) and the brief, periodic enactment of “antistructure” in liminal rites and performances (such as pilgrimage, initiation, and festivity). Turner introduces the notion of the “liminoid” to distinguish between what he sees as the liminal rites and practices of traditional or premodern cultures and the location of liminal-like practices in modern, industrial society, which Turner tends to locate in artistic domains. See, for example, Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982. []
  8. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, 20. []
  9. Grimes, Reading, Writing and Ritualizing, 170. []
  10. Victor Turner, “Are the Universals in Performance?” in By Means of Performance, edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. []
  11. Scott Tobias, An Interview with Wes Anderson, A.V. Club, October 10, 2007.http://www.avclub.com/articles/wes-anderson,14161/ []
  12. Bazura Xmas Interview ’07 with Jason Schwartzman. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPidPcaa4_M []
  13. Adrian Brody, NYFF Interview (2007). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUBRbCzYEcA []
  14. Scott Tobias, An Interview with Wes Anderson, October 10, 2007.http://www.avclub.com/articles/wes-anderson,14161/ []