Monday, May 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control ** ½
Directed By:
Jim Jarmusch.
Written By: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Isaach De Bankolé (Lone Man), Alex Descas (Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (French), Óscar Jaenada (Waiter), Luis Tosar (Violin), Paz de la Huerta (Nude), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Youki Kudoh (Molecules), John Hurt (Guitar), Gael García Bernal (Mexican), Hiam Abbass (Driver), Bill Murray (American).

Jim Jarmusch has always made a career of making movies about people that most directors wouldn’t even attempt to. Not just that, but he makes movies about these characters doing things that most movies gloss over. There are a lot of scenes in Jarmusch’s movies about his characters waiting for someone or something. The Limits of Control is a movie that is made up almost entirely of scenes like that. The main character simply identified as Lone Man (Issach De Bankole) spends almost the entire movie in meetings one on one with other characters, or waiting for these meetings to start or making his way to and from these meetings. The dialogue in the movie is sparse, and only once does this Lone Man show any emotion whatsoever. It happens as he sits in a café waiting for one of his meetings and orders two espressos in two separate cups. The waiter misunderstands and brings him a double espresso. The Lone Man is enraged. Other than that detail about him, and the fact that he doesn’t speak Spanish (which is established in the first meeting, although in every meeting that takes place after that the other character will remark “You don’t speak Spanish do you?”, in Spanish, which is simply greeted by a grim shaking of the Lone Man’s head) we don’t learn anything about him either. The other characters in the movie, most of whom only have one scene, probably say about as many words as Lone Man does even though he is pretty much every shot in the movie.

By this point in the review, you have probably already figured out whether or not The Limits of Control is a movie you would want to see. I imagine that most people in the audience would be bored almost to the point of tears watching a movie like this. It doesn’t offer any of the traditional payoffs that we are conditioned to expect from movies, and I think that is at least partly the point of Jarmusch’s movies. Even his most popular movies – the existential Western Dead Man with Johnny Depp, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forrest Whitaker and Broken Flowers with Bill Murray – are all different and forego traditional storytelling structures of most movies. It is part of the charm of Jarmusch’s movies. But even I, who count myself as a big fan of Jarmusch, found myself frustrated at more than one point during this movie. We spend the entire movie in a state of transfixed anticipation, waiting for the payoff – or perhaps simply the point - of the movie and when it finally arrives, we are inevitably disappointed. All this for an easy potshot at American imperialism? It hardly seems worth it.

And yet, I cannot say that I hated the movie. There are many simple pleasures in the movie in the conversations between the Lone Man and the various people he meets. Often they will start with a question of the Lone Man along the lines of “Do you like films?”, and when no response is forthcoming, go on a long monologue about films, that if you are paying attention, you will see references to later in the movie (the most obvious one is a nod to Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.) The subjects range from music to bohemians to just about anything else. The performances by these actors – Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Youki Kudoh, John Hurt and finally Bill Murray among them – are all quite good. Also good is Paz de la Huerta, one of the few characters in the movie with more than one scene, who spends the entire movie naked. It also must be said that the cinematography by Christopher Doyle, who may just be the best in the world, is often absolutely gorgeous, even when it appears to be doing nothing.

The problem with the movie maybe De Bankole himself. He doesn’t quite have the same magnetic screen presence of a Depp or Whitaker or Murray who were able to make their characters at the center of a strange Jarmusch film interesting to watch throughout. But perhaps that’s too easy. De Bankole does not have the role that those other actors did either, and he is quite a good actor as he has proven time and again throughout his career. He is required to sit there and be still and emotionless throughout the movie, and you really cannot argue that he doesn’t do that. The question you need to ask to yourself is whether or not you will find anything of this as interesting as I did, if not more so. I expect the answer for most people will be no. But there are a few brave souls out there who will likely think that The Limits of Control is one of the year’s best. I wish I could agree with them.

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