Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Isaach De Bankolé (The Lone Man), Alex Descas (The Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (The Frenchman), Óscar Jaenada (The Waiter), Luis Tosar (Man with Violin), Paz de la Huerta (The Nude Woman), Tilda Swinton (The Blonde), Yûki Kudô (Molecules), John Hurt (Man with Guitar), Gael García Bernal (The Mexican), Hiam Abbass (The Driver), Bill Murray (The American).
Have you ever fallen asleep briefly while watching a movie – perhaps for only a minute or two – and when you wake you feel slightly confused as to what is going on in the movie? Where you have a feeling that you have missed some vital piece of information that would make the movie you’re watching clearer? That feeling pretty much describes the feeling I had throughout Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. The film stars Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankole as a character known as The Lone Man who has a series of meetings with various characters – most often over coffee, where The Lone Man insists on two espressos, in separate cups – not one large espresso. He exchanges colorful match books with the person he’s meeting, who always begins the conversation with “You don’t speak Spanish do you?” – in Spanish – which makes sense since the movie takes place in Spain, although the people he meets are from all over the world. The Lone Man than listens as his scene partner rattles on about something – movies, bohemians, capitalism, etc. – than the pair exchange something else, and The Lone Man goes on his way again. He has a definite end game, but the audience isn’t privy to it until the very end. Whatever it is, it’s certainly illegal.
More than even most of Jarmusch’s films, The Limits of Control is all style and little substance. Watching the film the first time in 2009, I was confused through much of it, but basically sat back and enjoyed isolated moments. Jarmusch knows how to write cryptic conversations that can be funny, confusing and interesting all at the same time, and he gets good performances from his cast. That’s the case here as it is amusing to see such talented actors as Alex Descas, Tilda Swinton, Yuki Kudoh, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Hiam Abbas play characters with no backstory and no context come in for a scene, deliver what is essentially a monologue, whose meaning is left vague, than go on their way again. And in Isaach De Bankole, Jarmusch has found the perfect straight man – largely silent with a mysterious, unreadable look on his face for the entire movie, I could not help but be fascinated by him. Who is this guy?
Other scenes don’t work as well. Paz de la Huerta shows up as a character billed as The Nude Woman, because, well, she’s nude the whole time. This, sadly, seems to be all that many directors choose to do with de la Huerta, who undeniably looks great nude, but in films like this or Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void isn’t really given anything else to do.
The scene eventually leads to a climax where The Lone Man confronts The American (Bill Murray), who talks about the same things everyone else did, but in a much different way – decrying them, instead of celebrating them. He is in a heavy guarded compound, and wants to know how The Lone Man got in – which is a good question since we don’t see him do it either. “I imagined my way in” he tells The American, before doing what he was sent there to do.
Jarmusch has said that he “wanted to make an action movie with no action, whatever that means” and in The Limits of Control, I guess he succeeded in doing that. I can easily imagine a movie with a similar structure being turned into a Paul Greengrass thriller, with The Lone Man meeting a series of contacts to get him next to his target, and then dispatching him with ease. All that’s missing is the gunfights from The Limits of Control – and of course, more perfunctory dialogue than Jarmusch gives his characters.
Watching the film a second time helped clarify things – not really in terms of plot, but in terms of what Jarmusch is trying to do in the film. I didn’t really like the film back in 2009, and I don’t really like it that much now. It’s too cryptic, too slight to be satisfying in any real way. It’s something though – and whatever that is, I think it’s what Jarmusch intended. Take from that what you will.
Note: I will be seeing Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, today, and will write a review – and a conclusion to this series, next week.