Three brothers reunite a year after their father’s death in The Darjeeling Limited. Francis (Owen Wilson) has organized the get together, and Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) are reluctantly along for the ride.
Each brother is hurting, and they’re all holding onto something. This is visualized by the large amounts of luggage they carry that they finally toss aside at the end of the movie. Francis’ pain is also visualized as his face is badly wounded and wrapped in a large bandage throughout the film.
Peter is hesitant to tell Francis about his wife’s pregnancy because he’s convinced they will someday get a divorce, meaning a child is only a future complication. Jack is hung up on his ex-girlfriend, and he also hates her. He even has the code to her voicemail machine and regularly checks in to see what she’s been up to. Francis is hyper-concerned about this trip. He has it all planned out, but he neglects to tell his brothers that their train voyage through India is leading them to their mother, who they haven’t spoken to in over a year and who didn’t come to their father’s funeral.
Somewhere along the way, the brothers get kicked off of the train because, first, Peter brought a poisonous snake onboard that then escaped. Second, they got into a fight in which Jack maced the other two, and that’s what did them in. So it’s important that their internal conflicts got them kicked off of the train because it forced them to address what’s keeping them apart.
Francis is controlling, not just organizing the entire trip secretly but also by holding onto the brothers’ passports and ordering for them when they have dinner. Peter didn’t tell Francis about his wife’s pregnancy, and he is constantly spotted wearing their father’s articles of clothing, which Francis says should belong to all of them. Jack’s gripe is that he wants to leave early, so he buys a ticket in secret, and Peter doesn’t want to be left behind, alone with Francis. They’re all scared of each other on a one to one basis, but the fact that there are three of them makes the journey more palatable.
So when Francis asks for his belt back (which he gives and takes back from Peter repeatedly), Peter hits him in the face, and they begin brawling. Then Jack intervenes, and they’re off the train.
Walking along somewhere in India, they spot three young boys crossing a river using a rope-pulley system that gives way, stranding them in the rough waters. The brothers all jump into action, but while Francis and Jack save their kid, Peter fails. Peter also had the hardest job of the bunch, so the kid didn’t stand much of a chance, but Peter takes it hard, saying “I didn’t save mine.” He feels more than responsible.
The brothers are then escorted to the boys’ town where they finally have the spiritual experience Francis was aiming for throughout the film. When they go to the boy’s funeral, they are immediately flashed back to their father’s funeral. Suddenly we see the brothers in their normal habitat. Francis’ face is smooth and healthy. Jack’s hair is slicked back, and he’s clean-shaven (no mustache), and Peter’s hair is shorter too. We also meet his wife. The brothers are uniformly clothed in funeral suits, and this highlights the ways in which they’ve changed in that year.
In the flashback we see that they seemed to work well together. They try to get their dad’s car from the mechanic, even though it hasn’t been finished in time. For a moment it seems as if they’re in a heist film, but they quickly realize their plan won’t work, as the car has no battery in it. They give up and head to the funeral. Francis gets a call informing him that his mother won’t be there. When his brothers ask about their mother, he only says she’s not there yet.
So Francis is always the one with the information. At first he appears to need the control, but that’s either because he’s the most out of control or he wants to protect his (presumably) younger brothers. Francis’ accident is implies to have been a suicide attempt, so this entire India plan is all covering up or partially addressing his pain. The other two brothers don’t want to deal with it, but they need the catharsis as much as he does. The fact that they both agreed to come along suggests that they know they’re in need of something.
They’re about to board the plane to go home, but suddenly Francis convinces them to turn around and complete the journey, seeing their mother. They’re all onboard, united. Structurally, this is the same moment as when Steve Zissou and his crew save Bill and Alistair from the pirates in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Everyone is united in their plan, but there is still more to be done, externally.
In The Life Aquatic they had to see about that jaguar shark, and in The Darjeeling Limited, that shark is their mother. It turns out she’s living in a remote compound, spiritually helping people who need it. When they see her, Jack says they need her too, but she seems to think they’ll be fine without her. Whereas the boys can’t let go of the past, she has moved on quickly or at least tried to. She’s all about the future and communicating without words. The brothers are heavily damaged (self-medicating throughout the film and even sharing their medication).
When the four of them are together, their mother asks them to try communicating without speaking, and we see them sitting in a circle looking inward. Then we see the camera pan left to right, showing different train compartments and bringing back all the characters we have met throughout the film. Every Wes Anderson movie has had this kind of scene. We see the woman with whom Jack had a brief fling, the snake Peter lost, Francis’ assistant who was helping to organize the trip and even Bill Murray playing a nameless character we only met at the beginning of the film and haven’t seen since.
These moments and little vignettes help imply a world beyond the camera. Just as the brothers have been on an important, introspective journey, so have all these other characters, to a degree. Maybe they haven’t been on such a journey but they will.
The next morning they find that their mother has gone, and on their own they complete a spiritual prayer. Then they run to catch the next train, tossing aside all their baggage.
In other Anderson films, the characters didn’t always seem to realize how badly they were suffering or in need of change. In Tenenbaums Richie did attempt suicide, but that was only after he didn’t think he’d ever get to be with Margot. Something had to happen to put him in that mindset, and in Darjeeling that has already happened when the movie starts. These characters do know that they need to change something, but they’re paralyzed by not knowing how to do that.
Francis is the man with the plan, but his plan is certainly a little flawed. If anything it’s too idyllic. He trusts that his brothers will just go along with it, but it’s important for them to resist in the ways that they do. If they all just went along with the plan, there would be no internal progression, but because of who the characters are, that was never going to happen. They’re just strong enough to withstand that interpersonal conflict long enough to grow from it.
In the flashback of their father’s funeral (after an untimely death), they appeared to have a healthy sibling relationship. So when they reunite, Francis imagines there’s a good change they can make things work together. It’s not as if they’ve never known each other. It had only been a year of estrangement. Together they put the pieces back together. They had been living in suspended animation, unable to move forward and not knowing if they ever would. The metaphor of the train is also important because they have no choice but to move forward; there’s no other direction.
The journey allows them to finally anticipate the future rather than making plans to withstand it.