THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
“The best films are like dreams you're never really sure you had.”
- Blonde (Tilda Swinton)
With a rating of 40%, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is Jim Jarmusch’s lowest rated film on the Rotten Tomatometer. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus is that it’s “a minimalist exercise in not much of anything…a tedious viewing experience with little reward.” The venerable Roger Ebert, who usually has a more positive slant than most critics, gave the film half a star - which is also the lowest rating he’s given for a Jarmusch film. Ebert appraises the filmmaker’s motive: “I think the point is that if you strip a story down to its bare essentials, you will have very little left.”
So, with such painfully poor reviews to go by I went into THE LIMITS OF CONTROL with very low expectations. Maybe that helped because while I found it slow and fairly impenetrable I was never bored and the imagery mixed with the mood have stayed with me ever since.
Let's take a look at the plot: Isaach De Bankolé credited only as “Lone Man” is a man on a mission in Madrid. We are never told this mission, only given cryptic clues. In between lying on his bed in his hotel room (much in the same manner Jarmusch filmed Bill Murray in his previous film BROKEN FLOWERS sitting on his couch doing nothing as the day light disappears), doing some form of Yoga, and visiting art galleries, he sits at outdoor cafés and orders two espressos in separate cups.
It’s all part of an unidentified plan - various contacts (including John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Tilda Swinton) approach his table and exchange matchboxes with him.
They always begin the process by asking: “¿Usted no habla Español, verdad?” (translated: “You don’t speak Spanish, right?”) He nods "no" and then they alternately speak to him about different subjects. With one it’s music, with another it’s science, and most notably with Swinton it’s film.
Swinton references Orson Welles' THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI remarking that she believes it’s the only film in which Rita Hayworth played a blonde. As Swinton is wearing a platinum blonde wig for the first time in her career the moment is undeniably meta. This quality is also felt later in the film when while walking the streets sees a movie poster featuring a likeness of Swinton in the same get-up.
De Bankolé is trading matchboxes full of diamonds for ones with a small note inside. The notes have numbers listed on them and after a quick study he eats them and washes them down with one of his espressos. He returns to his hotel room at one point to find a woman (Paz de la Huerta) laying on his bed wearing only glasses. In as few words as possible he tells her he doesn’t engage in sex while on the job but since he just appears to be passing time until meeting the next contact this is as odd and mysterious as everything else in the film.
Aided by a map of that he destroys by burning, not eating, after reading, De Bankolé finally reaches his destination - a heavily guarded compound in which Bill Murray resides. Murray, only credited as “American” (nobody in this film is properly named) is a rich businessman who spouts out a critique of current society as De Bankolé prepares to kill him using a tightly pulled guitar string.
What the title means in all of this I have no idea – my attempts to form a theory have come up with no satisfactory results. I’m also perplexed by the vagueness of the narrative (perhaps Ebert is right about the point of it) and what anybody’s motivations are. Somehow though, these quibbles fade while the tone and beautiful photography of cinematographer Christopher Doyle remain in my mind.
This is the kind of movie in which you can agree to a large degree with the criticism heaped onto it but at the same time get something vital out of the experience. I can certainly understand reviewers wanting to warn average movie-going folks about enduring such an arty exercise when they’d probably be happier with more conventional fare but films like this shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
Since his '80s indie incarnation, Jarmusch has been an intriguing filmmaker who makes mesmerizing art out of the spare rhythms and meditative moods of his characters. Here he gives us next to nothing to go on about his lead, yet De Bankolé gives a serenely stoical (there’s only one instance in which I can recall him smiling) performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. A transfixing tone that I still can’t shake makes this a film I believe will be greatly re-evaluated in the years to come.
So to answer in more concrete terms the question posed in this post’s heading - I wouldn’t claim that there is no justification in the majority of the critics’ pans, nor would I say that there’s more to it than meets the eye. What I would say is that THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is a worthwhile watch for those not looking for the cozy comfort of meaning. It’s the sort of unruly cinema that frees one from meaning, and that usually takes some folks some time to catch up with.