Limits of Control, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/08/09 00:00:00

"The Good, the Bad and the Maddeningly Oblique"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you are in the mood to see an honest-to-goodness fight break out before your eyes, you are hereby advised to make your way down to your nearest arthouse theater complex and wait for a showing of Jim Jarmusch’s latest work, “The Limits of Control,” to get out. When it does, I can almost guarantee that when the audience members spill out, there will already be arguments breaking out between those who are convinced that they have just seen a sublime formal masterpiece and those who think that they have just witnesses one of the most formless, pointless, arch and excruciatingly repetitive pieces of pseudo-hipster nonsense that they have ever witnessed. Strangely enough, now that I think about it, both sides have a point. On the one hand, the film is fairly maddening, largely inexplicable and if it hadn’t been made by someone like Jarmusch, whose filmography includes such genuinely great films as “Stranger than Paradise,” “Dead Man” and “Broken Flowers,” there is a fairly good chance that I might simply thrown my hands up in frustration at maybe the halfway point and fled the theater in frustration. On the other hand, while it doesn’t quite work as a whole, it does have the occasional moment of brilliance here and there and if nothing else, it is such a formally unique film to experience that it is almost worth watching just so that you can tell others that you actually managed to sit through it all.

Issach De Bankole stars as a man who is identified only as Lone Man and while we are never specifically sure of who he is or what he does for a living until the end, we can quickly sense that he is at least a spiritual cousin of Ghost Dog, the oddball hitman played by Forest Whittaker in the Jarmusch film of the same name, though without the obvious whimsy and zest for life. Upon meeting with a couple of men regarding a job in an encounter that teeters between the enigmatic and the bewildering (“Everything is subjective, whatever that means.”), Lone Man is sent off to Spain to do what it is that he does. What this consists of is sitting around cafes drinking two separate single cups of espresso (the closest he comes to displaying an identifiable human emotion comes when a waiter mistaken puts both in the same cup) while waiting for a series of mysterious people to arrive, inquire as to whether he speaks Spanish or not, offering up an eccentric monologue about a pet obsession and pass on matchbooks with indecipherable instructions that send him somewhere else. Among those he encounters in a very naked woman (Paz de la Huerta) who turns up in his hotel room with a few ideas of how to pass the time before he meets his next contact, a blonde woman (Tilda Swinton) who begins talking about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a young Asian woman (Youki Kudoh) who is all about molecules, a guitar-slinging old man (John Hurt) with theories about art and a hunky Mexican guy (Gael Garcia Bernal)--in the credits, these people are billed, respectively, as Nude, Blonde, Molecules, Guitar and Mexican. Eventually, Lone Man reaches the end of his quest in the form of an American businessman played by Bill Murray and if you think I have cruelly blown one of the film’s surprises, I should note that all the cast members are listed in the opening credits in order of appearance and his name does come up last.

In theory, “The Limits of Control” is interesting and I suppose that if I wanted to, I could write a long and thoughtful review about how Jarmusch is using the pattern of repetition seen throughout the film in order to explore the idea of what it means every time said patterns are repeated. I could talk about how he is doing for the enigmatic hitman movie what he did for the Western in his classic “Dead Man”--exploring and exploding the tenets of the genre by taking its ideas and exploring them in minute detail. I could also write about Jarmusch’s intriguing conceit of using such a rigid formal narrative as a framework for what is essentially a loose collection of vignettes. And yet, I cannot bring myself to write that kind of review because to do so would suggest that I felt that this was exactly what Jarmusch had in mind when he made this film and to be completely honest, I have no idea what he was going for or even what he thought he was going for. The repetition angle doesn’t work because you never get the sense that he is trying to say anything with this particular approach--as the film goes on and on and on, he seems less like an artist onto something interesting and more like a guy who spends nearly two hours struggling to tell the same joke. (Perhaps one could read this as Jarmusch’s version of “The Aristocrats.”) The genre exploration theory doesn’t work because while Jarmusch had some fascinating things to say about the Western and the mythologies that it created, all he really does here is indicate that yes, he has seen the likes of “Le Samourai” and “Point Blank” and in regards to the idea of exploring genre by removing all of the most obvious trappings, I would like to point Jarmusch (and you) in the direction of “Spartan,” David Mamet’s amazing take on that very same notion. As for the idea utilizing a formally rigid spine as a jumping-off point for loosely connected vignettes, this is an approach that Jarmusch has utilized throughout most of his career in films such as “Mystery Train,” “Night on Earth,” “Year of the Horse,” “Coffee & Cigarettes” and “Broken Flowers” and he doesn’t do anything that different with it here.

And yet, while “The Limits of Control” is a curiously unsatisfying work as a whole, especially when coming from a filmmaker of Jarmusch’s stature, it nevertheless contains a number of undeniably engaging elements. The cinematography from world-renowned lensman Christopher Doyle is a work of beauty that brings life to even the most mundane details (and let it be said that this film is not lacking for mundane details) and the soundtrack compiled by Jarmusch and Jay Rabinowitz does an excellent job of keeping things moving along. And while De Bankole is perhaps too much of an impassive presence in the lead role, most of his supporting players supply enough quirky energies of their own to keep the scenes alive. As the operative who is stark naked for her entire time on-screen, Paz de la Huerta is an undeniably alluring presence--so much so, in fact, that when she does eventually deign to put a piece of clothing on, it has the paradoxical effect of making her seem even more naked. (Okay, since the garment in question is a transparent raincoat, I guess that isn’t that big of a deal, but still . . .) Swinton and Hurt, both of whom have worked with Jarmusch in the past, get some lovely moments in their brief-scenes--Swinton makes such an impression in her brief bit that I would love to see Jarmusch one day spin off an entire movie around her character. As for Bill Murray, all I have to say is that his ability to wander into a movie for just a scene or two and completely steal it is maintained with his brief turn here--whether anyone in the audience will last long enough to see it, on the other hand, is something else entirely.

“The Limits of Control” is not a great or even a good movie by most conventional standards and it is likely that many of the critics who fell over themselves praising “Broken Flowers” will no doubt have their knives out for this one. I concede that it is the least interesting work that he has done in years and I am not entirely sure that I would actually want to stick my neck out far enough to recommend it to anyone whom I might have to deal with after the fact. And yet, I cannot deny that I found some of it intriguing for all of its flaws, there is more going on with it than there is in the likes of a dreg like “Wolverine.” If any of what I have written sounds interesting or if you are a confirmed Jarmusch fan, you should probably try to give this one a chance, albeit with slightly lowered expectations. However, if you have never seen a Jim Jarmusch film before in your life, this is not the place to start that particular branch of your film education.

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