People go to thrillers to see sensational action and paint-by-numbers plots, but when confronted by a crime film that is mostly about itself, what’s an audience to do? It can waffle to the ready reaction of boredom or it can take a closer look at what’s actually on—and beyond—the screen.
Jim Jarmusch demands the latter with The Limits of Control. Armed with cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s camera and eye, Jarmusch trusts the visuals to coax a shift in the way the audience observes. The movie is so packed with questions and reflections about the essence of perception, it’s mind-blowing how little dialogue is actually used. A minimalist presentation that tells the simple story of an assassin on a mission twists into a meditation on subjectivity and visual composition.
Identified as the Lone Man in the credits (Isaach De Bankolé, looking stylish as ever), our main man is assigned to assassinate somebody as the film opens and hints that he will confront the nature of reality along the way.
Throughout his mission, he is handed a succession of coded clues—delivered in matchboxes—by a series of strangers. Each encounter introduces ramblings about memory, language, perception and cinematic history. The Lone Man is observant and silent, just as Jarmusch forces the viewer to be.
Through brief but intense museum visits, the notion that art must radically and violently confront the corporate banality that strangles global culture ultimately is affirmed. The Lone Man works his way across Spain, through an onslaught of pop references, cultural flash points and meta constructs, toward an inevitable confrontation with the dudes we all want to strangle: those damn Americans who fly around in black helicopters.
Jarmusch’s direction flirts with expectation constantly. Film references arrive with the sack-full-of-hammers heavy-handedness that somehow Jarmusch does casually. A naked woman with a gun (Paz de la Huerta), for example, appears in the Lone Man’s bed and the references to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt are dead-on. When a snazzy hipster (Tilda Swinton) approaches the Lone Man with a look straight out of a French New Wave poster, she delivers a secret message but is most concerned with reminiscing about old films in which characters sit around and don’t speak.
The Limits of Control is just such a film—and a masterful one. Jarmusch succeeds in making his subjects tear away preconceptions and begin anew the act of watching. The Lone Man absorbs his codes and directives from his observations and his subjective interpretations; in the same way, viewers must buy into Jarmusch’s intellectual whimsy if they are to find resolution through the course of the plot.
But then, that’s what a good film is supposed to do.
The Limits of Control
Directed and Written by Jim Jarmusch
With Isaach De Bankolé, Alex Descas, Luis Tosar, John Hurt, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta and Tilda Swinton
116 min., R