Is the beginning even the beginning? It’s a question I posed in my head about halfway through Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control,” first literally and later philosophically. Structured as a series of discrete, uncannily repeated sit-down encounters between a mysterious loner (Isaach De Bankole) on some sort of criminal assignment and a succession of enigmatic oddball contacts throughout sunny Spain, “The Limits of Control” at least seems to have a concrete starting point: De Bankole’s airport rendezvous with a Creole and French man (Alex Descas and Jean-Francois Stevenin), who appear to be giving him his initial coordinates, albeit in subtitled French and then spoken English (just the first instance of repeated information in a film that continues to replicate itself throughout). But the more narratively obscured, morally ambiguous meetings he has, and the more they echo one another in increasingly apparent ways, the more I began to assume that not only might the film’s purpose and “logical” endpoint remain unrevealed but also that perhaps we began this story in medias res. That we never find out only adds to the teasing, circular existentialism of Jarmusch’s film, his best in over a decade. It’s a return to the subliminally jokey neonoir of some of his early films, but it’s also unmistakably the work of a seasoned master who understands the power of every shot, cut, and uttered word.
“The Limits of Control” finds Jarmusch in laidback self-reflexive mode—the structure is circular, even if the film itself is made up of sharply defined, harsh angles and straight lines. Like its protagonist, it’s wholly ascetic, yet a distinctly Jarmuschian brand of tomfoolery pokes around the edges of its modernist cleanliness. During the course of his mission (undefined to us, though in all likelihood clear as crystal to him), De Bankole’s taciturn lone man travels from Madrid to Seville, and ends up in the desert, though all his destinations fuse together and overlap, marked as they are by the same tokens and talismans: Le Boxeur matchbooks passed to him over tabletops, tiny paper notes showing indecipherable symbols (coordinates?) that he promptly swallows with a swig of one of the two espressos he continually orders (“in separate cups!” he demands, in one of the few lines he utters in the film). The destination and goal are never betrayed; Jarmusch remains as uncommunicative as De Bankole, whose sculpted facial features barely move a millimeter from first frame to last (there’s just the faintest trace of a smile at a joke made by contact John Hurt). He’s “Le Samourai”‘s Alain Delon reimagined as a newly global ghost, unburdened by identity or specific nationality.
Stoic and smooth, attractively bow-legged in his glistening silvery-blue suits, this protagonist exists out of time—a possible Luddite, maybe a Buddhist, but definitely an aesthete. Every twist in his assignment is marked by long passages of waiting, in which he traverses sun-dappled squares and lies in wait in hotel rooms—yet he often makes room for museum visits, returning regularly, in between his cryptic meetings, to Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Like Vertigo’s Madeleine staring at the painting of sad Carlotta, De Bankole seems to be immersing himself in art, on each visit fixating on an image that somehow echoes the latest clue of his mission—while waiting for a man with a violin case he soaks in Juan Gris’s cubist “Le violin”; before meeting a mysterious woman (Paz de la Huerta) lying naked on his hotel room bed, with whom according to instructions he must wait, he admires a supine nude by Roberto Fernandez Balbuena. There’s nothing literal going on here, no plot-driving hints hidden behind the frames or scrawled on the canvases, Da Vinci Code-style; rather Jarmusch seems to be engaging us in both his protagonist’s world view (quietly artistic, meditative) and in the practice of viewing the universe aesthetically, as well as morally. Each contact that the lone man meets along the way (Tilda Swinton, looking in her bleach-white raincoat and wig as though eloped from “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”; a denim-clad, hirsute Gael Garcia Bernal; a glistening Youki Kudoh, ever melancholy) seems locked in a stranglehold of philosophy, spouting provocations like “Everything is subjective,” “Reality is arbitrary,” and “Nothing is true.” Thus, while watching the film, our craving for narrative justification becomes synonymous with Jarmusch’s philosophical quest. Ultimately there’s nothing new here: just the age-old dead end of the search for knowledge.
If that makes the film sound like a metaphysical slog, it’s surely anything but. Christopher Doyle’s refined, yet continuously surprising cinematography (the camera always seemed to either stay still or move when I least expected it) and the music by Japanese experimental trio Boris, which at times attains a Kubrickian abstract grandeur, keep every moment vital and enveloping. Like his poetic Western “Dead Man” (one of the very best films of the Nineties), Jarmusch keeps “The Limits of Control” smartly, if tensely, balanced between matters of existence and those of genre filmmaking. It’s less a willfully obscure puzzle movie than a careful description of the world refracted in art (Rimbaud, Burroughs, Gris, Kaurismaki, Hitchcock). And that likewise, as indicated in the film’s opening image, of De Bankole meditating in a bathroom, his tai chi moves distorted and upside down in a mirror, art is merely a funhouse reflection of reality.
The Zen-like cool direction of Jim Jarmusch mixed with the almost supernatural beauty of cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s imagery help strike the mood for this languorous tale of a loner (Isaach De Bankole) on an inscrutable mission in Spain. Dressed in iridescent shiny suits, the stoic loner sits in endless cafes ordering 2 espressos in separate cups and waits. There are oblique encounters with strangers (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal) who wax metaphysically while exchanging tiny matchboxes across the table. His journey leads him to an armed encampment with a mysterious American (Bill Murray). There is an anti-action French New Wave feel to the proceedings. Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in many ways. Beautiful, and strange, and like a perfect piece of jazz- it sends you out of the theater in a blissed haze.
As if in retreat from the mainstream after making his most commercially accessible film in Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch returns with an extreme art film as obscure and elliptical as anything he's ever made. The Limits Of Control is a puzzle wrapped in an dream, a blur of reality and consciousness, images and sounds, which stubbornly – and proudly - refuses to follow conventions of narrative or pacing. As maddening as it is intriguing, the film is unlikely to break out of a very small arthouse niche.
Broken Flowers, buoyed by Bill Murray's central performance, grossed a noteworthy $33m outside the US and a respectable $13.7m domestically. With Isaach de Bonkole in the lead here, The Limits Of Control will rely on Jarmusch's name and some tasty cameos to sell it, but it will be an uphill battle for Focus Features to build much of an audience beyond the director's fanbase when it opens on May 1 in North America. Numbers will most likely be along the lines of Jarmusch's 2004 portmanteau Coffee And Cigarettes which took $2.2m in domestic and $5.7m internationally.
The Limits of Control's core audience would seem to be a highbrow festival crowd. Indeed there's something to be admired in Jarmusch's resolute refusal to instruct the audience what to feel or indeed let them know much about what is going on. Surrender to its formalistic rhythm and beautiful compositions and there is much pleasure to be had here for an intellectual audience. Cinephiles will appreciate the references, explicit and otherwise, to John Boorman's Point Blank (the company Jarmusch created to produce this film was named PointBlank Films), The Lady From Shanghai, Antonioni's entire oeuvre and others.
De Bankole is a crisply dressed loner on a mysterious assignment. In a business class lounge at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, he meets a Creole man (Descas) and a French man (Stevenin) who give him indirect instructions about the job in hand while also musing about how reality is in the eye of the beholder. The loner is told to proceed to Madrid and await further instructions from a man with the violin.
The rest of the film plays out in Spain as the man pursues one contact after another. At each meeting, he awaits specific codewords and exchanges matchboxes. The matchbox he receives contains information (coordinates?) which he reads and then swallows.
Like Lee Marvin's character in Point Blank, he remains distant and professional throughout – refusing sex offered him aggressively by one of the contacts (de la Huerta whose character name is "Nude") and observing every detail with the same blank detachment as he views the paintings in the Reina Sofia Museum.
Among his contacts are movie-mad Blonde (Swinton decked out with typical eccentricity in platinum blond wig, cowboy hat and leopard skin), science-focused Molecules (Kudoh, so memorable in Mystery Train two decades ago) and art fan Guitar (Hurt). The meetings he has with each person follow the same pattern and each contact delivers an oblique monologue. After various exchanges in Madrid and Seville, the man moves to the country for his final assignations (Bernal, Abbass) and the purpose of his mission which involves Murray.
Shot gorgeously on location by Chris Doyle, each frame a composition in itself, the film moves at its own deliberate tempo: some would call it boring, others hypnotic.
Jim Jarmusch is a model of stylistic consistency who emerged as a full-blown talent and erupts once a decade—Stranger Than Paradise in the ’80s, Dead Man in the ’90s, The Limits of Control today.
An acutely self-aware, anti-psychological character study, The Limits of Control focuses on the archetype of the Hitman. Jarmusch sets his self-contained, catalytic anti-hero (French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé) in a semi-documentary landscape and contemplates his progress with a quasi-religious sense of awe.
Identified in the credits as the Lone Man, Jarmusch’s protagonist exists only in terms of his unspecified mission, or his role in what is perhaps a conspiracy. The Lone Man is introduced in an overhead shot doing tai chi in an airport toilet stall, then taking a meeting in the first-class lounge. A few inexplicable aphorisms later, he’s traveling through Spain by train, grooving on a landscape shot by Christopher Doyle and soundwashed in hyperdrone acid jazz (courtesy of the band Boris). Like everything Jarmusch, The Limits of Control is calibrated for cool.
The Lone Man is a creature of habit, defined by his idiosyncrasies (insisting on two espressos in separate cups) and his reserved response to his invariably eccentric contacts. All this killer need do is show up and acknowledge the password ("You don’t speak Spanish, right?") to receive a coded message passed in matchbox and set off his contact’s solo riff. De Bankolé’s voluble co-stars include Tilda Swinton (a refugee from Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong in blonde wig and matching Stetson), John Hurt (babbling about Bohemia, bohemians, and "an oddly beautiful Finnish film"), Gael García Bernal (in manic mode), and Bill Murray (identified as "The American" and channeling Donald Rumsfeld).
Madrid and next-stop Seville are filled with obvious spies. It’s borderline risible when the Lone Man finds a naked girl with a gun (Paz de la Huerta) lolling on his hotel room bed or when Swinton begins holding forth on the nature of old movies: "Sometimes, I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything," she adds by way of acknowledging De Bankolé’s silence. That’s Jarmuschian humor. His movies are typically based on a series of whimsical two-handers: In The Limits of Control, these meet-cutes have been boiled down to a set of absurd, enigmatic repetitions. Led to a "closed" flamenco bar, the Lone Man watches a rehearsal in which the singer delivers dialogue from the movie’s first scene with such excessive stylization that it inspires the flicker of a smile on his normally inexpressive face.
By the time the Lone Man is given an ancient guitar, from which he removes a single string, and, told that "the Mexican will find you—he has the driver," travels to a forsaken town in the middle of nowhere, he might be wandering through the afterlife. The landscape goes through cosmic changes en route to a pueblo that looks like it was last inhabited by the cast of a spaghetti Western. But even as he ventures deeper off the map in a truck with the bumper sticker "La vida no vale nada" ("Life is worthless"), there’s no missing the Lone Man’s uncanny wardrobe—a succession of stylish suits with color-coordinated shirts that could hardly fit in his elegant, ridiculously small travel bag.
The Limits of Control is a shaggy dog story, but it’s leaner and less precious (and more beautiful) than the past few Jarmusch films—not to mention his last exercise in existential assassinitis, the 1999 Forest Whittaker vehicle Ghost Dog. The Lone Man traverses the empty streets and barren landscapes of an abstract thriller, glimpsing previously met characters (or their images), engaging in mysterious transactions (a fistful of diamonds here, an earful of Schubert there), and trafficking in the free-floating symbols of a surrealist poem. His steps are guided by picture postcards or red flowers found lying in some stone-paved alley. Tracked by (or following) the same black helicopter from city to city, chased by kids who ask if he’s an American gangster, he lives in a world of allegory and myth.
Mission accomplished, the Lone Man ponders an Arte Povera white canvas and rope assemblage in Madrid’s Reina Sofía museum. What does it mean? The contents of the package are unknowable; the twine that wraps around its enigma is everything.