The Limits of Control

Saturday, March 13, 2010 8:33 PM By Simon

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray, Hiam Abbass, John Hurt, Youki Kudoh, Jean-François Stévenin, Luis Tosar, Alex Descas

Synopsis: A lone man goes about Spain, gathering information from a variety of contacts for a mysterious mission.

Yes, well...what to say? CHances are, if you're reading a movie blog, you've seen at least one Jim Jarmusch film. He's like Jack Kerouac in the literary crowd--you at least keep a poster of his lying around to seem cool to people who come around. He's just one of those inaccessable directors you can watch a million times over and still have only your surface instincts and internet message boards to guide you closer towards a coherent theory of what the fuck's going on.

With that in mind, I have to say that of his latest, Limits of Control is the trippiest, weirdest, most obscure of a long filmography or trippy, weird, and obscure. This is a Your Mileage May Vary thing.

We follow a man, played by regular Jarmusch staple Bankolé, who is credited simply as Lone Man. We do not know who he is, what his past is, his motivations, nothing. He's, of course, the silent type--his entire job, at first, appears to sit around, drinking two expressoes in seperate cups, and make people feel uncomfortable.

He meets his contacts one by one, each introducing themselves by asking if the man speaks Spanish. He says no, they sit down (as it is usually at an outdoor cafe, where he droly sips his aforementioned expressoes), start talking about whatever ("Are you interested in _______, by any chance?"), before being reminded of their purpose by the man taking out his matchbox--the one handed to him by a previous encounter--and trading it with a new one. That person will tell him who to meet next, by one-word description only, and where, and leave. The new matchbox will have a scrap of paper, with a code written on it. The man will take it out, read it, presumeably memorize it, crumble it up, and down it with his second expresso. Make sense?

It becomes a practice in repetition after a while. And, because of the repition, because they are so similar, these encounters, one starts to dissect the words, try to make sense out of them. For instance, I found myself thinking, after the third of fourth time, that the question about Spanish--which is always asked in Spanish--might juyst be a code word, to make sure the contact has the right person. It's just one of those films that can have multiple meanings, but never a right answer...even if the director outright told you what it meant, you'd just stick to your theory.

But really, their is no story...the pacing is so slow, with long bouts of absolute silence, not uncommon in a Jarmusch film, but still. We'll spend two minutes watching the man do his morning yoga. Shit like that. We'll also hear the same phrases repeated over and over, in various contexts--"He who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery. There he will see what life really is: a handful of dirt", "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," etc.

It's beautiful, though. Say what you will about the film itself, but you can't deny, Christopher Doyle is a brilliant cinematographer. The landscapes, the camera shaking a bit as it follows a car through the streets, it's just gorgeous. And, of course, you have to give it a hand for it's ambition. The music, for all the anticlimax of the film itself, makes you think you're watching a thriller. Sweeping, swelling, lots of violins.

The acting is great, but then again, it's almost never the acting that's the problem. De Bankolé makes this character, a literal blank slate with no written or obvious emotion, keeps him from being a cold robot with curt nods, but understanding eyes, instead of directly answering a question. He has few lines, and few bodily movements, so it all lies in his face, the tics and flinches, that keep him from being a complete non-presence, and De Bankole does it well.

The supporting players--almost everyone gets one scene, all contacts with their matches. Probably my favorite is the woman credited as Nude, played by Paz de la Huerta. She first pops up at the Lone Man's hotel room in Madrid, completely naked except for her thick librarian glasses. She asks him if he likes her ass, and after a moment, he says yes. It's pretty funny on Bankole's part...he keeps from filling the caricature role of a stoic, serious man being confronted with sex, somehow. and, anyway, she invites him for sex, and he says, not while he's on a job. It's just a funny scene, and even funnier cutaway, where she, Nude, is hugging onto him while he lies in bed, dressed and completely mellow about the whole thing.

And, what I was saying...there's Tilda Swinton, in a platinum blonde wig, snakeskin boots, and a cowboy hat, as a woman interested in old movies, and talks to the typically silent Lone Man about Welles and Hitchcock films. John Hurt as Guitar, one of the last meetings, a man who talks about Bohemians (both the Prague and contemporary kind) before giving him an old guitar to be passed off to the Mexican, played by Gael Garcia Bernal...he is one of two (the other being Nude) who require material compensation for their information.

Right, right, where was I going with this? The problem with this movie, I think, is not the pace or the inaccessable's the pure self-indulgence Jarmusch has fallen into. While you'd never call him a mainstream director, he's always kept onto the notion of a story, an ongoing series of events you might generously call a plot. Here, he's completely gone off the rails, not quite going avant-garde (thank god, it never falls into Un chien andelou territory) but pretty damn close. Pretension, I think, has always been the temporary downfall of great directors...Richard Kelly, Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, even Danny Boyle went off in Sunshine. But Jarmusch has always been this side of pretensious bullshit...he started off in that pool, and pretty much stayed there. Maybe his most mainstream ventures have been in the 90s, Dead Man and Ghost Dog. He seemed to find a nice plateau in these recent years...Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes. But now, with Limits of Control, he became the obscure minimalist of his Stranger Than Paradise heyday.

His most political film, especially at the end. An extremely international cast (Ivorian, Spanish, British, Palastinian, Japanese, French, Creole and Mexican actors), all working, it seems, against the American (Bill Murray).

I could go on and on, describing in detail every single character and meeting, what they mean, theories on what the codes mean, who the man is, who the Blonde is, what does she have to do with the Nude, what happens to them's just that type of movie. But I won't, because I've bitched about it enough. I don't know if i'd recommend it to anyone but a small and select group of Jarmusch apologists and people who liked Inland Empire. The DVD box boasts a "stylish and sexy [...] thriller", which really is a reprehensible lie. Because, while the plot was the perfect setup for some action-packed star vehicle, it was written by Jim Jarmusch. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, his best work. Or his worst. I'd have to say that, I don't know what to think of it.