Film Review: The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch's blank-faced anti-thriller is little more than an exercise in directorial cool, but nevertheless has its moments that could well live forever.
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A man sits in an airport lounge, listening passively as a couple of gangster-looking types obliquely lecture him about a mission he's about to depart on. It's a one-way street, they talk in circles and he listens, apparently taking it all down. The Lone Man (as he's termed by the press notes, no name deemed necessary) has a statuesque, impassive face whose powerful planes are accented by the crisp accents of the camera. It's a face that one has to get used to. Because for a healthy stretch of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, that face will be just about all there is for company. No voice, no story. Just the face of a Lone Man on an inscrutable mission, which is to be executed with the studied diligence of a elderly tortoise and the lean aggressiveness of a wolf who's lost his pack and needs none to replace it.

Although later parts of the film will not be precisely chatty, the opening stretch of the film is shorn nearly clean of human contact. We have the Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé), on the job in Madrid. Following directions, he moves into an apartment in a soaring skyscraper and waits for the next part of the assignment. Nothing much fazes him, even when a naked, ornately bespectacled woman (Paz de la Huerta) turns up in his bed pointing a revolver at him. He's serious about his job, though; one of the few sentences that leaves his lips the entire film informs her that he doesn't indulge in sex when he's working.

The man's only indulgence, and seemingly sole sustenance, is the two cups of espresso (not a double) he emphatically orders in every café. His "work" is hard to decipher, as he moves from one city to the next, waiting for people in cafés and, when they arrive, exchanging matchboxes with coded notes inside. Every meeting with a new person begins with a rhetorical question, "You don't speak Spanish, right?" After that, the visitor of that current scene's quirk—Tilda Swinton done up like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon on a cowboy kick, John Hurt as some saddened troubadour, or Bill Murray as, well, you'll see—delivers a wandering soliloquy on films, science, randomness, bohemians. There are ghostly hints of a mission, a black helicopter stuttering over a high desert region or the beautifully captured twisting alleys of Sevilla, and an efficiently violent, possibly magical climax that mystifies more than it explains.

Jarmusch's point is at first as hard to figure out as the Lone Man's. In some ways it seems another of his stone-faced adventures, where a passive protagonist is shepherded through numerous baroque encounters. When one considers Jarmusch's comment that the film could be read as a Jacques Rivette take on John Boorman's Point Blank, the result can almost seem too academic. And indeed, segments of this admittedly gorgeous film could be taken as almost self-parodic in their arch pretentiousness. The crystalline beauty of Christopher Doyle's cinematography and a soundtrack that alternates between Dead Man-esque guitar-wash and tasteful classical selections please the senses but frustrate the mind.

Even though it often seems concocted of little more than 21st-century noodling on the grand Euro art-house tradition, a glorified feature-length music-video that nods to the masters, Jarmusch achieves heights here he hasn't managed in some time, the moody loneliness putting him among the ranks of Wim Wenders and Wong Kar Wai. The soul shivers at the film’s cold beauty.