[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
Is the beginning even the beginning? It’s a question I posed in my head about halfway through Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control,” first literally and later philosophically. Structured as a series of discrete, uncannily repeated sit-down encounters between a mysterious loner (Isaach De Bankole) on some sort of criminal assignment and a succession of enigmatic oddball contacts throughout sunny Spain, “The Limits of Control” at least seems to have a concrete starting point: De Bankole’s airport rendezvous with a Creole and French man (Alex Descas and Jean-Francois Stevenin), who appear to be giving him his initial coordinates, albeit in subtitled French and then spoken English (just the first instance of repeated information in a film that continues to replicate itself throughout). But the more narratively obscured, morally ambiguous meetings he has, and the more they echo one another in increasingly apparent ways, the more I began to assume that not only might the film’s purpose and “logical” endpoint remain unrevealed but also that perhaps we began this story in medias res. That we never find out only adds to the teasing, circular existentialism of Jarmusch’s film, his best in over a decade. It’s a return to the subliminally jokey neonoir of some of his early films, but it’s also unmistakably the work of a seasoned master who understands the power of every shot, cut, and uttered word.
“The Limits of Control” finds Jarmusch in laidback self-reflexive mode–the structure is circular, even if the film itself is made up of sharply defined, harsh angles and straight lines. Like its protagonist, it’s wholly ascetic, yet a distinctly Jarmuschian brand of tomfoolery pokes around the edges of its modernist cleanliness. During the course of his mission (undefined to us, though in all likelihood clear as crystal to him), De Bankole’s taciturn lone man travels from Madrid to Seville, and ends up in the desert, though all his destinations fuse together and overlap, marked as they are by the same tokens and talismans: Le Boxeur matchbooks passed to him over tabletops, tiny paper notes showing indecipherable symbols (coordinates?) that he promptly swallows with a swig of one of the two espressos he continually orders (“in separate cups!” he demands, in one of the few lines he utters in the film). The destination and goal are never betrayed; Jarmusch remains as uncommunicative as De Bankole, whose sculpted facial features barely move a millimeter from first frame to last (there’s just the faintest trace of a smile at a joke made by contact John Hurt). He’s “Le Samourai”‘s Alain Delon reimagined as a newly global ghost, unburdened by identity or specific nationality.
Stoic and smooth, attractively bow-legged in his glistening silvery-blue suits, this protagonist exists out of time–a possible Luddite, maybe a Buddhist, but definitely an aesthete. Every twist in his assignment is marked by long passages of waiting, in which he traverses sun-dappled squares and lies in wait in hotel rooms–yet he often makes room for museum visits, returning regularly, in between his cryptic meetings, to Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Like Vertigo’s Madeleine staring at the painting of sad Carlotta, De Bankole seems to be immersing himself in art, on each visit fixating on an image that somehow echoes the latest clue of his mission–while waiting for a man with a violin case he soaks in Juan Gris’s cubist “Le violin”; before meeting a mysterious woman (Paz de la Huerta) lying naked on his hotel room bed, with whom according to instructions he must wait, he admires a supine nude by Roberto Fernandez Balbuena. There’s nothing literal going on here, no plot-driving hints hidden behind the frames or scrawled on the canvases, Da Vinci Code-style; rather Jarmusch seems to be engaging us in both his protagonist’s world view (quietly artistic, meditative) and in the practice of viewing the universe aesthetically, as well as morally. Each contact that the lone man meets along the way (Tilda Swinton, looking in her bleach-white raincoat and wig as though eloped from “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”; a denim-clad, hirsute Gael Garcia Bernal; a glistening Youki Kudoh, ever melancholy) seems locked in a stranglehold of philosophy, spouting provocations like “Everything is subjective,” “Reality is arbitrary,” and “Nothing is true.” Thus, while watching the film, our craving for narrative justification becomes synonymous with Jarmusch’s philosophical quest. Ultimately there’s nothing new here: just the age-old dead end of the search for knowledge.
If that makes the film sound like a metaphysical slog, it’s surely anything but. Christopher Doyle’s refined, yet continuously surprising cinematography (the camera always seemed to either stay still or move when I least expected it) and the music by Japanese experimental trio Boris, which at times attains a Kubrickian abstract grandeur, keep every moment vital and enveloping. Like his poetic Western “Dead Man” (one of the very best films of the Nineties), Jarmusch keeps “The Limits of Control” smartly, if tensely, balanced between matters of existence and those of genre filmmaking. It’s less a willfully obscure puzzle movie than a careful description of the world refracted in art (Rimbaud, Burroughs, Gris, Kaurismaki, Hitchcock). And that likewise, as indicated in the film’s opening image, of De Bankole meditating in a bathroom, his tai chi moves distorted and upside down in a mirror, art is merely a funhouse reflection of reality.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]