Mental note: Never vacation with the Whitman brothers.
The three grown siblings are bundles of neuroses—not ideal traveling companions, particularly when that travel takes place on a crowded train in enigmatic India. Francis, the eldest, thinks he has everything well in hand. “This is a spiritual journey,” he tells his two brothers, and he’s scheduled their trek to enlightenment in five-minute increments. He’s even hired an assistant to print and laminate their daily itineraries.
“Say ‘yes’ to everything, even if it’s shocking or painful,” Francis says. (Just don’t do anything that’s not planned.)
Peter and Jack figure the whole expedition is bound to be pretty painful, whether they say “yes” or not. They humor Francis at first, but the novelty wears off fast, and they have their own problems to deal with. Peter’s prone to searching out trouble while compulsively wearing their dead father’s prescription sunglasses everywhere (which leads to excruciating headaches). Jack does everything he can to run from trouble; before this trip, he hid from his ex-girlfriend for weeks in a Paris hotel.
They’re a set of brothers only a mother could love, but they’ve lost theirs—literally. Patricia took off without leaving so much as a new e-mail address. Only now, through the help of a private investigator, has Francis managed to track her to a secluded nunnery on the far side of India, figuring that a family reunion would make everything, finally, A-OK.
Only problem is, Ma doesn’t want to see them. The convent, she writes after being contacted, is having problems with man-eating tigers. Hmmm.
The Darjeeling Limited is a family film. But only inasmuch as it satirically showcases a brutally dysfunctional family at its absolute worst. In a backhanded way, Darjeeling tells us a lot about how important and influential parents are to their kids—even after they’re grown. [Spoiler Warning] When the Whitman brothers finally see their mother, we see just where Francis got his bossy side and Jack got his tendency to skedaddle. Form follows function, as they say, and this dysfunctional family was formed by Ma and her freaky bad attitude. (Becoming a nun doesn’t seem to have changed much for her.) And that’s a great warning for parents everywhere.
The brothers also were, in their own ways, shattered when their father was killed. They literally carry around his baggage—a garish, dozen-piece set of luggage emblazoned with his initials. When the brothers ultimately fling this luggage to the side in a rush to catch a final train, it’s a pretty clear sign from the filmmakers that their cleansing, spiritual journey—such as it is—somehow worked.
The turning point for them comes when they get kicked off their first train and, while trudging along a dusty road, see three children struggle to get across a raging creek. The Whitmans selflessly rush into the water to save them. But one of the little boys dies, and they carry the body back to the village in sorrow. The mourning community embraces them and invites them to stay for the funeral. There, the brothers learn that kindness and compassion are the real spices of life, and from that point on, they begin to treat each other with more love and respect.
India is home to two of the world’s major religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) and is perhaps the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. “Almost every other week, some national or state holiday shuts down at least part of the country,” says Time magazine, and it’s this religious melting pot that serves as the colorfully jumbled backdrop for Darjeeling‘s quasi-spiritual journey.
The brothers visit the Hindu “Temple of 1,000 Bulls,” which Francis labels one of the most spiritual sites in the world. They try to “pray” together there, but their squabbling interrupts the experience. (After their attempt at Indian-style worship, we see Peter cross himself in Catholic fashion.) The brothers also visit a Sikh temple and, later, they spend some time pressing their foreheads to the ground—all the while asking one another if they feel any stunning supernatural changes yet.
Francis, Peter and Jack also muddle through a private ceremony (prescribed by a guru from an unspecified religion) featuring peacock feathers that they must let blow in the wind, or bury, or keep—depending on which brother you ask. They repeat a version of this ceremony near the end of the film and visit another Hindu shrine in the airport.
They attend a traditional Hindu funeral, where, among other things, a boy is cremated on a funeral pyre and his ashes are immersed in a nearby lake. And at several points the brothers are given the Hindu tilak (the red dot in the middle of the forehead).
Patricia, meanwhile, has become a sister at an Indian nunnery where she and the other nuns sing an off-tune Sunday school song when the brothers stop by for a visit.
The Darjeeling Limited opens with an intentionally odd, artsy and highly sexual precursor called Hotel Chevalier. In this “Part I” short, Jack and his ex-girlfriend engage in what apparently is one last roll in the hay. Jack (who remains fully clothed throughout the scene) slowly strips off most of his ex’s clothes, including her panties, revealing her bare backside. Ensuing activities are highly intimate, explicitly rendered and minutes long. Included are sexual movements, pleasured breathing and verbal obscenities. While audiences don’t see all of the ex’s front, she is obviously completely naked, posing at one point almost like a nude Grecian statue.
The two talk unambiguously about sex and relationship: She claims that during their break from each other she never had sex with anyone else, but it’s obvious she’s lying.
Days later, Jack has a tryst with a railroad attendant named Rita—within hours of boarding the train. He invites her to share a smoke in the bathroom, and the two strangers quickly entwine. He pulls off some of her clothing (audiences see her bare shoulders and the upper part of her chest), and she gives him explicit sexual instructions.
Rita and Jack meet again on occasion afterwards. When he barges into her room, Rita confesses that she has a boyfriend (with whom she wants to break up), and Jack asks her if he can kiss her. (She declines.) In a mirror, we see her back exposed past her waist.
Parting ways, a tearful Rita looks from her train window to say goodbye to Jack. “Thanks for using me,” Jack says. “You’re welcome,” she answers.
Francis spends most of the film with bandages covering much of his face—the result of an (“on purpose”) motorcycle accident which he describes in graphic detail. He later takes the bandages off his head, revealing a visage lined with still-bloody wounds.
It’s at that already decimated face that Peter throws a belt. The buckle draws blood. The two grapple and fight for a while before Jack sprays them both in the face with mace. They chase him. He sprays them again. (While trying to get away from them, Jack smacks face-first into a glass door, shattering it.) The brothers throw rocks at a departing train, trying to hit a steward.
The scene in which the brothers try to rescue the children from the river is intense. Peter, in trying to save one of the boys from being pounded against the rocks, gets bloodied up himself. His efforts are in vain, and we see blood trickling down his face as he carries the lifeless body back to the village.
Characters say the f-word about a dozen times and the s-word another half-dozen. (Patricia’s status as a nun doesn’t stop her from blurting out the s-word.) God’s and Jesus’ names are also misused. And a handful of milder swears (primarily “a–“) pop up.
The brothers’ quirky instability is exacerbated by their tendency to mix-and-match prescription and illicit medications—from cough syrup to heavy-duty pain killers to whatever else they can get their hands on in Indian bazaars. They pass around these substances at the drop of a hat, and Francis admits at one point that their purpose isn’t purely medicinal by saying, “Let’s get high.”
All three smoke regularly. And Jack and his ex order Bloody Marys during Hotel Chevalier. Francis spikes some sweet lime drinks offered on the train with a slug of whiskey.
An unnamed man, in a rush to catch the train, doesn’t tip the taxi driver who motors him to the station. Peter’s wife, Alice, is apparently due to give birth in six weeks, but Peter’s not too excited about it. Even though he loves his wife, he always assumed they were headed for divorce, so a child puts another wrench in his dismally imagined future.
The Darjeeling Limited is billed as and is in fact a trip of self-discovery for the Whitman brothers. They start their trek as clueless, selfish, boorish boobs and finish it as, well, slightly less clueless, selfish and boorish boobs. They learn that compassion and kindness are more important than $6,000 loafers, and that genuine camaraderie is more enjoyable than whole bottles of souped-up cough syrup.
The audience’s own journey, though, is derailed from the very beginning.
Natalie Portman’s turn as nude sex object sets the tone. She tells the Associated Press that she’s “really, really proud” of her unsympathetic, slimy and patronizingly titillating role, seemingly utterly forgetful of what she told Salon magazine in 2002:
“It’s horrible to be a sex object at any age, but at least when you’re an adult you can make the decision if you want to degrade yourself,” she said, thanking her parents for never pushing her into sexual roles.
As Hotel Chevalier abruptly transitions into The Darjeeling Limited, sex remains casual and consequence free. And it’s consistently shown as little more than a supercharged scratch for nagging emotional itches.
But if sex is a supercharged scratch, the film’s ultra-postmodern, helter-skelter approach to spirituality is a hyper-supercharged scratch for all that is supposedly holy. The characters in this film find a sense of peace through their quest for spirituality. And they even take some true spiritual strides. But they don’t take enough of them: They go just far enough with their mix-and-match faith to make them feel better, but not enough where they actually are better.
One of the final scenes features the brothers revisiting their peacock-feather ceremony, with each brother doing a little dance and chant before they gather to blow on the feather in unison. The scene is intended to look ludicrous, but the filmmakers’ message is very serious: The path to enlightenment is an individual one. If dancing a jerky jig and blowing on a feather floats your boat, go for it.
That deeper message itself is what’s ludicrous, not the silly scene representing it. In a sentence, God is not a subjective ideal and faith is not something designed by humans to make us all feel better about ourselves.
Style is found in abundance in Darjeeling. Substance is severely limited.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.