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WHEN SOMEBODY DIES, I WATCH MOVIES. The day my grandmother passed, I sat at the altar with the brothers in The Darjeeling Limited. Watching Adrien Brody embody the sense of utter emptiness left by his character’s father’s death somehow helped get me a little closer to my own experience, though I couldn’t articulate it to anyone else. The most I could do was to ask my closest friends to sit with me, in silence or with a movie or show in the background. As I tried to avoid my own family—whose relationships with our matriarch felt too loud, too crowded to leave space for my own—I needed the paradoxical distance of fictional connections. Somehow, Wes Anderson’s characters gave me a stronger intimacy with my own feelings. Instead of rushing to my parents’ house twenty minutes away after my dad told me the news, for the first few days I barely left my apartment couch, asking my friends to stay close. Watching the three Whitman brothers—especially Peter, Brody’s character—grow frantic on the way to their father’s funeral, I felt like I was preparing for what was to come. Feeling my friends on either side of me—each with their own adult experiences of grief—I could translate my loss by simply sharing a vantage point toward the same screen.

This power of on-screen stories seems to work not by accident but by design—partly of the media themselves, but partly because of our current culture. Grief is an intensely personal feeling; when experienced without the stable tethers of community or religious traditions, it can become too powerful to share with those around us. In my case, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of watching my family grieve my grandmother through the framework of a religious community that I had consciously, with much struggle, given up. The compound loss was too deep to bear. At the funeral, when confronted with the Baptist tropes of my upbringing—too familiar and too bound up in other painful memories for me to find comfort in them—I couldn’t figure out how to be present, physically or emotionally. Instead, I needed someone else’s story to make the pain feel simultaneously more removed and more accessible. Sometimes, grief can only be fully felt when filtered through the imagination.

For both artistic and spiritual reasons, then, Wes Anderson’s often overlooked The Darjeeling Limited has been a steady presence through my own struggles. It offers endless material in considering how we can process grief through film. The relevance is obvious enough: three brothers grieve the loss of their father and attempt to reconnect with each other through a haphazard spiritual quest. But what makes this film especially fascinating is Anderson’s inimitable grasp of family dynamics. Darjeeling stars three of the director’s most regular actors: Owen Wilson (Francis), Adrien Brody (Peter), and Jason Schwartzman (Jack). What begins as an amusing adventure on a train across India quickly becomes a deeper exploration of the ways these brothers simultaneously embrace and repel each other, struggling to overcome their childhood sibling dynamics and trust each other with their vulnerability. Francis—the eldest, used to being in charge—takes every perceived slight personally when his two younger brothers push back or keep secrets; Peter holds in his grief and hoards their father’s old possessions, claiming a special intimacy with him; and Jack—the youngest, like me—alternates between letting himself be pseudo-parented and maintaining a defiant independence—also like me. Throughout the first half of the film, their closeness fuels both great honesty and intense conflict, all shrouded by the looming grief of their father’s unexpected death (now a year ago) and the sudden discovery that Francis is in fact taking them to find their estranged mother—now a nun in an isolated village.


Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson in The Darjeeling Limited, 2007.


Several themes offer a framework for understanding the mourning process. It quickly becomes clear that their family narratives—both individual and shared—are so entrenched that the brothers cannot quite participate in each other’s grief. Grief pervades every aspect of their interactions yet remains distorted by their complex, subjective histories. Although they are nominally seeking spiritual enlightenment as a means to reforge their bonds, their decision to travel through a foreign place, treating an unfamiliar religious culture as a tourist experiment, does not lead to meaningful consolation. When rituals are removed from their deeper context, they lose their power to comfort.

Although earnest, Francis approaches the experience with a naïve authority, as if he can construct a healing journey for their family through sheer effort plus a patina of exotic spirituality. At one point, on a whim, he attempts a ritual with his brothers involving peacock feathers that ends badly because “no one read the directions.” The rite is presumably intended to help them literally bury their pain through the feathers—or is it to let their pain fly away on the wind? Nobody gets it right, they retreat to their corners for begrudging reflection, and each brother is left isolated in his own pain, trapped on this fruitless expedition. They cannot escape each other or the sense that their family will never be the same without the father who held them together.

Afterward, when I see them sitting in resignation, nearly prepared to give up and go back to their own fractured, lonely worlds, I’m reminded of how I felt sitting at my grandmother’s funeral as my former youth minister gave a eulogy that ticked all the right boxes, publicly claiming a closeness with me that had been broken years before. Earlier that week, he had sent me an overwrought text in which he presumed to know my grandmother well after spending a few days with her well-worn Bible, but whatever tenuous connection he and I had left had been long strained by silence after I quit going to church. When it comes to grief, good intentions can create deeper wounds than simple insincerity or indifference.

The turning point in the film occurs when the three brothers find three young Indian boys—perhaps also brothers—trapped in a creek. Francis and Jack are able to save two of them, but Peter gets caught in the current with the third and carries him out of the water, dead. After returning the boys to their village, the Whitman brothers are taken in by the community, invited to share in daily activities, and ultimately to participate in the young boy’s funeral. As we witness the mourning rituals of the villagers, we are invited into a shared experience that—in contrast with the scenes where life continues—shocks us out of complacency. The boy’s funeral becomes a portal to a flashback to an emotionally charged incident on the day of their father’s funeral. Time collapses as Anderson’s trademarks—the slow-motion shots, the intricate visual arrangements—guide viewers to a fuller experience of the grief within the story (think, for example, of the perfect slow-motion funeral shot at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums).

Returning to the present, the brothers get the opportunity to comfort the bereaved father. They develop a deeper mutual trust, a new sense of family that no longer has to weigh them down like the inherited luggage they cast aside as they run to catch the last train (a little on the nose, but Anderson isn’t known for subtlety). By participating in a grief outside themselves, they become able to share their own grief more honestly.


If The Darjeeling Limited provides an exercise in communal mourning, The Patient—a recent television series from FX on Hulu—dramatizes isolated grief at its extreme. Steve Carell plays a recently widowed Jewish therapist (Dr. Alan Strauss) who is kidnapped by a violent patient (Sam Fortner, played by Domhnall Gleeson) who supposedly wants a cure for his compulsions. Although the showrunners (who come from Jewish backgrounds themselves) pay admirable attention to Sam’s story, managing to make him simultaneously horrific and pitiable, our focus is on Alan and his gradual working out of an intensely personal loss in solitude.


Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson in The Patient, 2022. Frank Ockenfells/FX.


The first few episodes focus on Alan’s immediate predicament, locked in the basement of a serial killer (and, it turns out, his hapless mother), with various family flashbacks scattered along the way. Slowly, details are filled in: Alan’s wife, Beth—the cantor at their progressive Jewish synagogue—passed recently from cancer; their son, Ezra—who in adulthood became committed to Orthodox Judaism and disavowed their version of the tradition—has much unresolved anger toward Alan. Family relationships have been broken, to the point where Ezra refused to sit with his mother on her deathbed and will barely speak to his father.

Unlike the brothers’ halfhearted attempt at enlightenment in Darjeeling, because Alan’s religious beliefs are central to his family’s way of life, Judaism becomes a major source of both conflict and consolation. Alan’s flashbacks tend to involve memories of synagogue or family religious arguments. At one point he discusses the kaddish with his captor, who—in an inchoate attempt at empathy—proceeds to buy a printer so he can print a copy for Alan (who has told Sam that Jews have mourning rituals “all laid out” for them). Interestingly, although the kaddish is typically prayed in community, when Sam asks if he can hear Alan recite the prayer, he responds, “It’s private.” He begins only when Sam has left the room. Over several weeks, as Alan struggles to maintain his composure and attempt therapy with Sam, his own preoccupations with Ezra gradually shift into focus. Strangely, he seems more able to empathize with Sam—a violent serial killer—than with his own son.

After a tragic attempt to save one of Sam’s victims, there is another shift. Like the brothers in Darjeeling, Alan begins to enter a larger, communal experience of grief as he starts to confront his own likely fate. He begins to have dreams about concentration camps, encountering Holocaust victims and picturing his wife in a gas chamber. Alan is tapping into his religious community’s shared history—and what can make one’s own grief more meaningful than filtering it through the tragedy of one’s tradition? Not unlike the Whitman brothers, Alan sees his lingering need to mourn transfigured by the faith of his people. Although he remains isolated, he at first imagines escaping in order to reconnect with his children, then accepts his fate and prepares for the end of his life.

In a wonder of storytelling, he manages to write a long letter to his children that Sam (who is also growing as a character) ends up passing along to them. In voiceover, we hear Alan read the letter as we watch his children read silently. In this way, the story’s ending becomes a communal experience between characters and viewers. Unlike many contemporary films on religious themes that leave us shrouded in cynical irony or doubt, The Patient consoles us with genuine familial love, bolstered by a faith larger than any individual experience.


In my better moments, I like to imagine that this is how the rest of my family felt at my grandmother’s funeral, as they shared in Bible verses and hymns that had long lost their ability to comfort me but seemed to let my family leave the gravesite with a sense of peace. Instead, over several more years, like Ezra, I had to imagine my way into a new religious community—Catholicism, in my case—that could provide a similarly wide tapestry of tradition and belief in grief’s capacity for transformation. I like to hope that my family will make their peace with my decision someday. To their credit, they have attended their grandchildren’s baptisms, albeit reluctantly, and offered to recite a Catholic grace before meals, but I still hope for something deeper. The wounds of misunderstanding remain even as they scab over with these attempts to meet in the middle.

One significant scene from each story has stayed with me, both involving storytelling. In The Darjeeling Limited, Jack, a writer, frequently forces drafts of his autofiction on his older brothers. Early on, when he shares his version of the funeral incident, Peter bristles at the portrayal of his behavior, and Jack insists “the characters are all fictional.” At the end of the movie, Jack shares from his latest work, an interpretation of the toxic romantic relationship that his brothers have urged him to leave. They applaud his actions in the story; Peter says, “I like how mean you are.” Jack automatically starts to respond, “The characters are all—” He then interrupts himself and just says thanks, accepting that the story can become true, can translate pain into something larger than ourselves.

Near the end of The Patient, Alan has a vision of himself with Ezra’s family, now reconciled, sitting comfortably in their home. He sees his daughter-in-law nudge him out of a reflective mood. Their relationships appear to be without tension, and they participate in shared religious traditions with true joy. We sense that adversity has brought them together in ways made richer by the common roots of Judaism, despite differences in practice. Together, they sit around the table to sing the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, which includes a blessing of thanks for God’s gift of manna in the desert: the same creator who sustained their people with manna and blessed them throughout the centuries has now delivered this family from its suffering.

We almost believe that Alan has survived—until we see the ghostly figure of his own deceased therapist, a recurring figment of his imagination who has been a source of comfort during his captivity. The spell breaks, and we find Alan on the floor, gasping out his final breaths. Although the scene is painful, Alan’s imagination—his belief in a hopeful image—has enabled him to end his life well. We can be grateful that, through the letter, he had the opportunity to be completely honest with his children, and that they could receive his honesty. We can weep alongside the children in both these stories as they grope for something to fill the void their fathers leave behind.

It is hard not to see these actors—Carrell, Brody, Wilson, Schwartzman—as companions in my own jagged grief. One of the powerful effects of Wes Anderson’s ensemble approach is that we deepen our experiences of the actors as we encounter them in different contexts and they grow over time. Taken at face value, this might seem unhealthy: fictional characters and celebrities cannot be our friends; they can’t share in our daily lives or deepest experiences, despite what social media may imply. But then again, what is imagination for, if not to practice these connections, to make possible what seems impossible, to bring us a little closer to our own humanity?

I think often about the scene in Darjeeling when the brothers finally confront their mother (Anjelica Huston, another Anderson regular) in the convent. We quickly come to understand why they seek her love yet no longer expect it to satisfy them. Growing impatient with their questions, she declares: “Listen: I’m sorry we lost your father. We’ll never get over it, but it’s okay. There are greater forces at work. Yes, the past happened, but it’s over, isn’t it?” Without missing a beat, Francis replies, “Not for us.” Clearly shaken by their presence and unable to deal with the weight of their grief, their mother offers an alternative: sitting together in silence. Without flinching, she gazes directly into each son’s eyes in turn, letting tears run down her cheeks. It’s an incomplete communion—like the brothers, we are unsurprised to learn that the next morning she has left the convent without saying goodbye—but it communicates what they need to keep going together. It’s enough to get them back on the plane to return home, where they belong.



Casie Dodd’s work has appeared in The Windhover, Oxford American, Front Porch Republic, and other journals. Based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, she is the founder and publisher of Belle Point Press.




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