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Out of It: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Focus Features)

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009


The Limits of Control
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
(Focus Features)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

I pretty much started giving up on The Limits of Control around five minutes in when one of the film’s many unnamed sphinxes imparts ostensible words of wisdom to Isaach De Bankolé’s hitman/spy. “Everything is subjective,” he monotones as if he were laying down some mind-bending philosophy. Nobody on screen reacts much to this, and neither did I, because as the first in a series of aphoristic mantras it’s attached to nothing substantially illuminating or visually demonstrative, just tough guys in suits playing — this is a film that “knows itself” — tough guys in suits.

Facile allegory, tone-deaf tone poem, and genre deconstruction of a genre that need be deconstructed no more, Jim Jarmusch’s new film is going to inspire loads of hyperbole, googly-eyed defenses of his artistic courage on one end and derisive charges of pretension on the other. But I can’t summon up much concern for The Limits of Control. I hate the film, but I hate it for being small in the ideas to which it’s true rather than for falsifying big ones. It’s not an offensive pose, but neither is it daring outside the anomalous relationship it bears to the usual mediocre lullabies that currently pass for “independent” filmmaking, and if it wants to be regarded as any sort of profound statement or hypnotic cinematic fugue it’s in trouble — its meanings are indefensibly shallow and its atmosphere depressingly thin.

The Limits of Control is supposed to be an enigmatic odyssey by way of inverted pulp fiction. Bankolé’s tai chi practicing, immaculately suited, poker faced Lone Man is Jarmusch’s symbol of incorruptible fortitude and expandable consciousness, debarking on a vaguely defined mission involving secret codes passed in matchboxes and diamonds smuggled into beverages, moving from major Spanish metropolises to small towns to the outer regions of the desert where he infiltrates the remote compound of a churlish authority figure (Bill Murray). Routines — including visits to local museums and a very specific espresso order — punctuate each location, while encounters with eccentric agents providing monologues on guitars and the derivation of the word “bohemian” bring our hero toward a greater understanding, perhaps, of the ephemeral, ambiguous, and humbling nature of perception and existence.

“Perhaps” because Jarmusch’s major miscalculation here is reducing multidimensionality to the quaintly weird. His command of the objective correlative has very noticeably slipped: where his landmark feature debut Stranger Than Paradise evoked an avalanche of associations and feelings in the uncontrived image of a whited-out Midwestern lake in the depths of winter, in Limits he offers thrift-store pageantry. “Use your imagination,” “The universe has no center and no edges,” “He who thinks he’s bigger than others must go to the cemetery” are constantly repeated phrases that find expression in men carrying bathtubs, in skylines melding into paintings, in absurdist anti-comedies of bespectacled beautiful women (Paz de la Huerta) showing up naked on hotel beds. Such lazy Surrealism is mildly amusing rather than disorienting, and Jarmusch’s stylistic flourishes (the most lavish for this minimalist since the vapor-trail superimpositions of Ghost Dog) don’t seem to lift the film to the heights of the “mood piece” a friend of mine described it, and defended it, as: gratuitous ramping shots of shadowy characters walking sun-dried streets (the Spanish settings’ labyrinthine layouts are missed opportunities for De Chirico-like hauntings), cheap, too-brief color negative landscapes glimpsed through windows, and Antonioni-esque compositions of a circular-shaped hotel a series of claustrophobic arabesques meant to entrap the Lone Man.

They don’t, however, and this is where Jarmusch differs from Antonioni: Antonioni formed architectural commentaries around characters cipher-like but fully integrated into their surroundings (The Passenger, Antonioni’s largely Spanish-set anti-thriller, is a masterpiece of undermined subjectivity and metaphysical longing that The Limits of Control doesn’t even approach); Jarmusch’s Lone Man is simply a cipher, and the world around him doesn’t echo or counterpoint any actual qualities he might possess. He’s merely an ultra-cool super-agent — Jarmusch has cited Alain Delon in Le Samurai and Lee Marvin in Point Blank as references — abstracted into a Zen figure in a landscape. Having spent his career delving deeper and deeper into allegory, with The Limits of Control Jarmusch has finally achieved something like a purity of form. But where Dead Man and Ghost Dog at least employed allegory to address the paradoxes of American history and myth, The Limits of Control egregiously weds coffeeshop existentialism with simplistic smash the system metaphors — when you stop and actually consider its message, it’s no less a self-congratulatory wish fulfillment than The Matrix. Just before Bankolé dispatches the Man (choking him with a string pulled from an ancient guitar — art trumps capitalism!) he’s asked how he invaded his heavily secured fortress. “I used my imagination,” he explains.

But what imagination? For all the film’s talk about the mysterious power of art and life — the ceaseless reverberations of music, the ineffable beauty of moving pictures, the reconfiguration of molecules — it’s ultimately anti-mystery, uninspired enough to mock its genre trappings with wink-nudge ascetic refusals of its basic materials (“No guns, no mobiles, no sex” intones Bankolé — he’s so above them) and bored self-reflexive deprecations. A question by a child to Bankolé — “Are you an American gangster?” — goes nowhere, yields nothing, due to Jarmusch’s insistence on drowning political metaphor in dress-up homage. “Hitchcock. Suspicion,” Tilda Swinton’s bewigged, trenchcoated Hitchcockian Blonde says to introduce herself. Later: “I like it in movies when people sit and don’t say anything.” The ensuing moment of silence between her and Bankolé sits there dead on screen — we get it, of course, but its wilted effect demonstrates the drag of Jarmusch’s once wide-eyed deadpan humor and makes apparent how much more enthused and innovative Jean-Luc Godard was when pulling off the same joke four decades ago.

Indeed, The Limits of Control fails almost all the sources and influences it calls to mind. Compared to Jodorowsky’s vibrant, frenzied, sand-scorched psychodramas it’s ponderous and flat; compared to the visceral exotic netherworlds and psychic wars of Burroughs it’s prudish and vain. To slap Jarmusch with the “hipster” pejorative won’t suffice anymore, and yet the studied superficiality of his new film suggests nothing more than a hepcat’s peyote-fueled dream of untrammeled freedom in pursuit of knowledge and in retaliation against its corporate oppressors, and since Bankolé begins and ends the film at the same dull pitch, no conflict exists to have his attended lessons on appearing dreams and dreamlike appearances feel earned or even appreciated.

This is put into relief by the one scene that suggests what The Limits of Control might have otherwise been. Bankolé drops in on a flamenco dance rehearsal, and in response to the display of impassioned creativity cracks a smile for the first and only time on his chiseled, cubist face (a face that mirrors a painting from one of his earlier museum rounds). The commanding vibrato of a dancer singing one of the film’s refrains, “There he will see what life is — is a handful of dust,” brings out its forlorn essence in a way none of the film’s gimmicks do, and makes Jarmusch’s would-be iconic Lone Man for a frustrating flash something of a recognizable traveler in whom we might see our own observing, meditating selves.

Alas, throughout the remainder of The Limits of Control Jarmusch makes the same mistake he made in Broken Flowers. In that film he assumed Murray’s impassive countenance would inherently connote dry comedy without giving him anything dryly funny to play off of; here he believes Bankolé’s blankness can be a foil to the sophomoric “trippiness” around him. Everything is subjective, but I have a hunch many will share my opinion: It can’t, and isn’t.


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