The Limits of Control (Review)

Jim Jarmusch tweaks his formula with good results

Jun 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Much of Jim Jarmusch’s 10th film, The Limits of Control, unravels at airy outdoor Spanish cafés where an enigmatic, well-dressed man sits alone sipping espressos and absorbing the surrounding environs. Equally mysterious individuals interrupt the stretches of solitude to stop, sit and join him in conversation.

The visitors include Tilda Swinton, the translucent, crimson-haired actress who is transformed into a white-clad, statuesque platinum blonde with a cowboy hat, bug-eyed sunglasses and a clear vinyl umbrella that is useless against the Spanish sun. They talk cinema.

“The best films are like dreams you’re never really sure you’ve had,” Swinton says to her stone-faced companion. She continues in praise of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and films where people simply sit and talk. They’re preferences Jarmusch clearly shares, particularly in his latest film.

The Limits of Control is auspiciously an international thriller. Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé stars as the Lone Man, a Tai Chi-practicing stoic with a predilection for tailored suits who is hired to undertake an undetermined mission. The quest takes him to Spain, traveling from metropolises Madrid and Seville to tiny dirt-road towns, gathering clues along the way from disparate individuals played by Swinton, Luis Tosar, Youki Kudoh, John Hurt and Gabriel Garcia Bernal. The cryptic puzzle pieces delivered in matchboxes lead the Lone Man to a confrontational endgame with Bill Murray in a locked-down compound. This all sounds exciting, but any adherence to the aforementioned genre ends there. Mission Impossible it isn’t.

Jarmusch instead presents an action film devoid of action. Car chases, explosions and gunplay are ignored in favor of reflection, introspection and, in a beautiful surprise, art appreciation. The Lone Man listens as his cohorts discuss science, the arts, philosophy and history. He loses himself in Picasso and other Spanish painters at the Reine Sofia art museum in Madrid and pauses to listen to a flamenco dancer, singer and guitarist at a small black-box cabaret. References to Puccini, Schubert, Manuel El Sevillano and more float from mouths to hang over and eventually absorb into the proceedings.

Prototypical action elements exist in Limits, but under heavy suppression. When a beauty rivaling any bedded by James Bond tempts the Lone Man, he chooses the admiration of her nude curvature over seduction. When violence surfaces, it’s handled with an affected grace and quickness that renders it almost invisible, as if it was a hallucination.

Yet the film is far from meandering. A repetitious precision controls its events. For all of his wanderings, the Lone Man is a creature of habit. Morning Tai Chi. A walk through the city. Two espressos. Meet contact. Converse. The occasional museum visit. Repeat. Scenes are reenacted in duplicate and triplicate, but with a change in setting, composition or characters. Deviations occur, especially as the Lone Man approaches his final destination, but the dream-like power of the pattern is unmistakable.

With its fish-out-of-water alienation, cross-country travelogue and extended rap sessions, The Limits of Control sits nicely alongside Jarmusch’s past features Strangers in Paradise, Down By Law, Broken Flowers and Coffee and Cigarettes but differs drastically from its predecessors in presentation.

The controlled precision is a far cry from the traditional, loosey-goosey Jarmusch freeform. It touches all aspects of the film, from the use of scripted dialogue over improvisation to multiple setups and hard-cut editing in place of long, extended takes. The changes are akin to seeing an old friend who always wears the same clothes suddenly in a new wardrobe — refreshing but familiar nonetheless.

So what’s the point? That’s a good question, and one with a double edge. Those expecting fast-paced thrills will be disappointed and probably bored to tears. Patient audiences will find a brave, provoking work — a film by an auteur unafraid to tinker with established elements, be they cinematic genres or his own modus operandi. Grade: B

Opens June 12. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.