The Limits of Control
The title of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control may, like anything else in the film, have multiple meanings. I’ve seen a reading summing up the movie as the main character’s dream, where control is arbitrary. Here’s my take. A thriller director is all about control — control of his effects, control of the audience’s emotions. This is an anti-thriller, though still rigorously controlled. The audience, too, wants control — they want to stay ahead of the narrative, they want certain tropes observed and followed. There are, however, limits to that control, and most critics have run head-first into them.
The Limits of Control, it must be said, is beautifully made. Once I gave up my own control — once I stopped willing the movie to be what I wanted it to be (whatever that might have been; this wasn’t my first Jarmusch, I knew what I was in for) — I went with the smooth, unhurried flow of it, the trancelike repetitions and rituals. The unnamed protagonist (Isaach De Bankolé), we gather, is some sort of hired syndicate man. He arrives in Spain and goes from place to place, meeting various contacts at outdoor cafe tables. They always say what I guess is a code phrase: “You don’t speak any Spanish, right?” They go off on tangents involving various disciplines — music, art, film, science. They trade matchboxes with him, give him instructions regarding the next contact, and leave. He takes a piece of paper out of the matchbox, reads the inscrutable code, eats the paper, and washes it down with a sip of espresso.
The man stays in various rooms, doing tai chi or lying sleeplessly on his bed. A frequently nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) seems to be following him around; she wants sex with him, but he says no, not while he’s working. He also wanders around various museums, looking at art that seems relevant to the current stage of his mission. Along the way, he meets guest stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael García Bernal. Finally he reaches the well-fortified heart of darkness, occupied by a bad-tempered Bill Murray, as appropriate a Kurtz for Jarmusch’s slow, deadpan journey as anyone.
Every frame is immaculate. Whatever else the film may be, it’s not ineptly directed. Jarmusch goes all the way into his mode of minimalist Euro-cool. Yet there’s an undertone of sadness; it’s not a hip, unfeeling film. The man comes from nowhere and does not allow himself the comfort of sex or even normal interaction. His sit-downs with his contacts are always one-sided; they hold forth and then leave him. The closest the man comes to being animated is when he visits an after-hours flamenco cafe. Even there, a phrase about death and hubris recurs.
People have been impatiently unkind to The Limits of Control, as if they were somehow expecting something else from the man who’s supervised some of the quietest, most deadpan genre-killers ever made. We’re at the 72-minute mark before anything remotely thriller-ish happens — as in any sense of onscreen peril — and the moment is swept away and never spoken of again. I suppose it’s been marketed foolishly; even the DVD cover promises “a stylish and sexy new thriller” that “simmers with heat and suspense.” Well, how else are they going to sell this thing? “Packed with existential ennui! Nothing happens for over an hour! A must-see!” At least Nathan Lee’s back-cover blurb is honest: “The ultimate Jim Jarmusch movie!” It does feel like something he’s been working towards, entering a genre and consciously leaving out the conventionally diverting bits. Even the poky Dead Man and Ghost Dog had occasional spasms of violence to keep the popcorn-chewers awake.
I’d say the movie is best read as the concluding panel of the trilogy begun by those earlier films. Each has an iconic figure of few words who walks gracefully among the brutal and corrupt. The Limits of Control is a Zen gangster film, a mandala that scatters itself at the end. Its very quietude and uneventfulness force you into the moment every moment, and if you don’t want to be there, don’t blame the messenger.