PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.
COMMENTS: Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.
It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange matchbooks with further instructions. The instructions tell him at what cafe to meet the next contact for another matchbook swap.
We don’t know the Lone Man’s mission, motive, employer, or adversary. A naked woman he finds waiting in his hotel room one night (an alluring de la Huerta) livens things up. He won’t have sex while he’s on the job, though, so for three nights she sleeps nude in his bed curled up against him while he lies there stoically, eyes wide open. She reappears a couple more times as he travels from Madrid to Seville to a deserted villa in the Spanish desert. A plot—well, really more just a collection of plot elements—eventually emerges. The Lone Man spies helicopters circling about. He sees another of his contacts abducted, moments after he has glimpsed her image, impossibly, on a film poster. He eventually discovers his ultimate target in a remote bunker.
The molasses-slow style, with its hints of dramatic significance arising from the tiniest of cinematic cues, feels like something Jean-Luc Goddard might have made if he’d decided to film a thriller in the style of Sergio Leone. The pace makes a Tarkovsky film look like a methamphetamine binge by comparison. It’s to Jarmusch’s credit, though, that, for the most part, the movie is hypnotic rather than dull. Christopher Doyle’s lush, brilliant cinematography helps immensely; he captures the Spanish cityscapes and landscapes with a painter’s eye for composition, and it can be a joy just to watch the Lone Man stalk across an arid plateau in his shimmering gray sports jacket. The scary music by the experimental Japanese heavy metal band Boris, which alternates with quiet classical pieces, lends an ominous aura of coming doom. Star De Bankolé has a genuine movie star presence that’s only amplified by his reticence. He almost never changes expression throughout the two hour film; it becomes a momentous event when the briefest flicker of emotion plays across his tight-lipped, inscrutable face.
But mostly, the fact that the film isn’t completely insufferable is thanks to Jarmusch’s mastery of the language of movies. He builds scenes not so much from thriller clichés as from deep motifs that have worked their way into our collective unconscious: the hero cocooned in solitude, the bafflingly complex conspiracy, the weight contained in a glance. The Lone Man stares at a cubist painting of a violin. The camera zooms in on his impassive face as dissonant guitar chords swell. Back to a zoom of the painting. Something significant has happened internally; we aren’t told what it is, but we’ve been trained to recognize it. The Limits of Control is full of such moments; every instant of the film feels momentous, but we’re never quite let in on why. That gives the film a kind of power and reveals Jarmusch’s unusual skill: the ability to create a sense of raw import without any context.
All this would have been even more mysterious and powerful, however, if Jarmusch hadn’t felt the need to pump this experiment in pure cinema full of a constant stream of meaningful-sounding, vaguely existential dialogue. Every contact the Lone Man meets discourses on some abstruse philosophical point over coffee: one lectures him about the memories contained in musical instruments, another about the metaphysics of molecules, and John Hurt goes into the etymology of the term “Bohemian.” It all feels very European—well, even more than that—it feels très European, n’est pas? The Lone Man isn’t interested in any of their disquisitions on music, or art, or science, and neither is the audience—although we might have been if they weren’t pronounced in such pompous tones. Even when the Lone Man reaches his intended victim, the target can’t keep his about-to-be-garroted yap shut without spouting a vague prophecy about the decadence of society, in a final speech cleverly constructed to appear to wrap everything up without actually answering anything at all. Ironically, the script’s attempts to sound profound end up sucking the profundity out of the film.
“Reality is arbitrary,” responds an unusually verbose Lone Man as he prepares to finalize his mission. Well, movie reality is arbitrary, at least; out here beyond the screen, people have actual motivations and real emotions and meaningful thoughts. Jarmusch doesn’t appear have anything to say about the world outside the malleable movie reality he’s created. In fact, the only time one of his characters says anything that doesn’t sound like total philosophical puffery is when Tilda Swinton’s character waxes rhapsodic about the power of cinema to transform the details of ordinary life into something magical. These lines ring true because that’s what Jarmusch understands and believes in, and what he does well. Next time, he should leave the philosophy to the philosophers and just focus on making a movie.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Limits of Control is a shaggy dog story, but it’s leaner and less precious (and more beautiful) than the past few Jarmusch films…The Lone Man traverses the empty streets and barren landscapes of an abstract thriller, glimpsing previously met characters (or their images), engaging in mysterious transactions (a fistful of diamonds here, an earful of Schubert there), and trafficking in the free-floating symbols of a surrealist poem.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice