Universal // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 17th, 2009
For every way in, there is another way out.
The Limits of Control is a film to separate those who truly love Jim Jarmusch from those who casually admire the director. In many ways, it is quintessential Jarmusch: it's yet another story about a quiet male character on a personal journey, it focuses as much on places and tone as on story (if not more), there are gentle conversations occasionally laced with dry wit, and long, wordless, free-flowing interludes are all underscored by slightly dreamlike, equally free-flowing music. Though there are loads of Jarmusch trademarks to be found within the film, it's also perhaps his slowest and least accessible movie to date (which is saying something when you consider that Jarmusch also made Dead Man).
The lead character is appropriately referred to in the credits as "Lone Man." He is played by Isaac De Bankole (Casino Royale), a man with a very intriguing face that tends to settle into a fascinatingly ambiguous expression. This is essential, because we're going to spend a great deal of time simply looking at this man's face as he says and does nothing at all. As the film opens, the Lone Man is greeted by two men (played by Alex Descas and Jean-Francois Stevenin) that may or may not be mobsters. "You don't speak Spanish, right?" one asks him in Spanish. "No," Lone Man replies. Then our protagonist is treated to a series of existential musings, which he accepts with grave seriousness. "People who think they're bigger than everyone else need to go to the cemetery," he is told. He is given a matchbox containing a small piece of paper with letters and numbers on it. He looks at the piece of paper, studies it for a moment, and swallows it.
Lone Man will spend the next two hours going from cafe to cafe throughout Spain, meeting different contacts and collecting different matchboxes with different pieces of paper. At every cafe, he will order the same thing. Two espressos in two separate cups ("Not a double espresso!" he sternly tells a confused waiter). His contact will sit down, order a bottle of sparkling water and then ask Lone Man the same question: "You don't speak Spanish, right?" He will confirm that he doesn't speak Spanish, and then his contact will proceed to talk to him about whatever subject happens to be on their mind. At the end of it, he'll give them his old matchbox, they'll give him a new matchbox, and he'll move on to his next assignment. Between these meetings, he stops at a museum and intently examines one piece of art each time. Every morning when he wakes up, he performs Tai Chi exercises. His routine is never, ever broken, not even when he gets the offer of sex from a naked woman (Paz de la Huerta, A Walk to Remember). "You don't like sex?" she asks. "Never while I'm working," he replies. He sees her again several times throughout the film. She is naked every time he sees her, so it's no wonder that she is credited as "Nude."
So his daily routine continues, again and again, over and over, for the duration of the film. The interactions themselves are intriguing in the way that the conversations in Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes are intriguing (though these tend to be less entertaining and much more esoteric). Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) turns up as a woman who looks like no one so much as Jarmusch himself, talking about movies, particularly film noir and Hitchcock. "Sometimes I like it when people just sit there and don't do anything in movies," she says, after which she and Lone Man simply sit there and don't do anything. Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel) turns up to talk about guitars and John Hurt (V for Vendetta) talks about bohemians, though Hurt is credited as "Guitar" and Bernal is credited as "Mexican." Youki Kudoh (Rush Hour 3) speaks about the way the re-shaping of molecules will change the world in the future, and Luis Tosar (Miami Vice) expresses his passionate love for instruments made of wood. All of these connections build up to a confrontation between Lone Man and American (a funny, foul-mouthed Bill Murray, Groundhog Day), in which the American bitterly trashes guitars, bohemians, molecules, films and everything else that Lone Man's contacts value.
These conversations take up less than half of the film's running time. The rest of the film is perhaps the material that Jarmusch finds most interesting and the material that most audience members will find dull. Music plays as Lone Man walks and rides from place to place. See Lone Man go up the stairs! See Lone Man walk down the hallway! See Lone Man drive down the road! See Lone Man walk down the sidewalk! You get the idea. There are some pleasant images to look at during these sequences, as Jarmusch essentially provides a silent tour of some very scenic parts of Spain. Even so, I found my mind drifting from time to time, because there wasn't much else for it to do. Even as someone who found the slow stretches of Dead Man fascinating and absorbing, I must admit that The Limits of Control tested the limits of my patience at times.
So what is Jarmusch getting at? We have a man who is clearly being controlled by others, yet he maintains intense control over everything that he controls. He cannot control everything (like one character's death), but what he can control he does (like another character's death). Meanwhile, there are vague statements made on life and the nature of things. I'm not sure that even Jarmusch knows what he's getting at (he's always been a rather "make of it what you will" sort of guy). Whatever The Limits of Control is, I have no doubt that it is exactly what Jarmusch wanted it to be.
The transfer is nothing short of excellent, conveying the attractive imagery with clarity and depth. Facial detail is superb throughout, and flesh tones look warm and natural. While I'm disappointed that Universal has generally avoided the Blu-ray format when it comes to Focus Features releases, this is undeniably an excellent standard-def transfer. The audio is also excellent, though there is so often so little to hear other than the rambling electronic music. It comes through with clarity and resonance, and the dialogue exchanges are nice and clean. The only extras are "Behind Jim Jarmusch" (which offers assorted behind-the-scenes footage and interviews) and "Untitled Landscapes" (a montage of locations used within the film). On a side note, I'm very amused by the disc packaging, which describes the film as a, "stylish and sexy thriller" that, "simmers with heat and suspense." Talk about hilarious false advertising.
I don't know if I can recommend The Limits of Control to anyone other than the Jarmusch faithful. It's certainly not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the director, and even those who love him may find it one of his lesser works. Even so, the film is somewhat intriguing to watch and very intriguing to think about, and I don't feel that my two hours were wasted even if they felt more like three hours. If you think you're game, proceed with caution, but most would be better-advised to check out somewhat easier-to-digest Jarmusch flicks like Broken Flowers, Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
The Lone Man is guilty of murder, but then he did kill someone who thought he
was better than everyone else, so I guess we'll let him off easy.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Locations Montage