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The Limits of Control

Jarmusch in Minimalist Mode

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Limits of Control, the first film from writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog, Dead Man) in four years, is an allusive, elliptical, existentialist anti-narrative where everyday rituals and the rhythms gain new, often elusive meaning. A return to Jarmusch’s preoccupations with identity, alienation, isolation, and the limits of language and culture, The Limits of Control will definitely reward Jarmusch’s fans or moviegoers with a taste for the challenging, intellect-stretching films made by Michelangelo Antonioni (The Passenger, Blow-Up, Red Desert) or Jarmusch’s contemporary, Wong Kar-Wai (2046, In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). Indeed, Kar-Wai’s longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, joined Jarmusch on this film.

In what becomes a pattern, an unidentified man (Isaach De Bankolé) referred to only as the “Lone Man” in the credits, meets two men in a French airport. They ask him if he speaks Spanish. He says no. They give him general instructions to take a plane to Barcelona, spend two days and act the tourist until a man carrying a violin (Luis Tosar) contacts him. In Barcelona, the Lone Man engages in Tai Chi, visits an outdoor café, and orders two separate espressos. He strolls through the streets of Barcelona and visits a museum. The man with the violin slips him a matchbox. The matchbox contains coded instructions to his next meeting, this time with a blonde (Tilda Swinton). A nude woman (Paz de la Huerta), apparently sent by his employers, awaits him in his ultra-modern hotel room. They make small talk, but the Lone Man refuses to sleep with her, claiming he never has sex when he’s working.

The roundelay of meditative exercise, espressos, and museum visits continues until the Lone Man receives instructions to leave Barcelona for Seville where, once again he crosses paths with the nude woman. He also receives coded instructions from an American carrying a guitar (John Hurt), who expounds on the meaning and origins of the word “Bohemian.” The Lone Man’s peregrinations finally take him to a small, rural town, where he encounters a Mexican (Gael García Bernal) and the driver (Hiam Abbass) who will finally take him to his destination and a meeting with an American official (Bill Murray). The Lone Man’s identity, hinted at repeatedly, becomes clear, but his motives never do. Instead, we, as moviegoers, are left with unanswered questions.

Each character plays their part in the narrative (or rather the anti-narrative game). The Lone Man is as much a cipher as the coded notes he receives from a steady parade of talkative contacts. One woman, the blonde, seems to imagine herself an actress in a period espionage thriller. That she brings up Orson Welles’ cryptic thriller, The Lady From Shanghai, is obviously intentional (as is every detail in The Limits of Control), first to raise expectations about what we’re seeing or are about to see and then to affirm the kinship between the two films

Is Jarmusch making a point about American hegemony and American imperialism? In the context of the title and the handful of clues Jarmusch gives the audience (look for the American’s rant and the Lone Man’s last change of clothes), then the answer is a provisional yes. That’s about as far as you’ll get from Jarmusch and The Limits of Control. That might not be enough (it won’t be for most moviegoers), but for moviegoers who enjoy constructing a narrative from seemingly mismatched puzzle pieces, then The Limits of Control might be for them. But to be forewarned is to be forearmed: although patience is often considered a virtue, in this film patience goes unrewarded.