Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isaach De Bankolˇ, Alex Descas, Jean-Fran¨ois Stˇvenin, īscar Jaenada, Luis Tosar, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, Youki Kudoh, John Hurt, Gael Garc’a Bernal, Hiam Abbass, Bill Murray
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity and some language
Running Time: 116
Date: 05/01/2009

The Limits of Control (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The general outcries by critics against Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control are as follows: 1) it has no plot and no characters, 2) it doesn't have a point, 3) it's too cool for its own good. Responding to these complaints, firstly, there's no rule that says a movie has to have a plot or characters. But I maintain that The Limits of Control does have characters and it does have a forward thrust. It's meant to suggest a hitman thriller, but in no way is it an actual hitman thriller.

Isaach De Bankolé stars as "Lone Man," a very slick man of few words. He wears shiny suits, does tai chi, listens to music, never sleeps and drinks two espressos in separate cups. He meets with two mysterious men in an airport (Alex Descas and Jean-François Stévenin), receives some cryptic instructions, and gets on a plane. He opens a matchbox, looks at a coded piece of paper, and swallows it with his espresso. He arrives in Spain and lets himself into a hotel room; he already has the key (no checking in necessary). A day or so later, a beautiful naked woman (Paz de la Huerta) appears in his hotel room, wanting to know if he's interested in sex. "Not while I'm working," he says. Still later, he meets another contact, gets another matchbox and moves on. The towns keep getting smaller and smaller until finally, he is practically traipsing around in the scrub brush. The contacts very often repeat the same phrases, and there are several recurring visual motifs. I will tell you that, in fact, the hero is a hitman, but I won't tell you the final details of his mission. I will tell you that the film leaves off rather quietly, in an anticlimax, without any kind of message.

But there is a point. There may be many. The main one is this: why do movies glamorize the bloody, violent job of the hitman? Why do we need suspense and twists to follow him around? Then there's the fact that the movie grows from very complexly urban to very crudely rural, and that the hero looks more and more out of place in his fancy suits. Then we have all our supporting characters, each from a different country and identified as such. At one point, a group of curious kids ask the hero if he's a "gangster from America." But in fact the only real American character is the one that speaks more openly and differently than everyone else, and seems the most violent and dangerous. Does the fact that he speaks new lines negate all the repeated lines we've heard so far? Then there's the fact that most of our characters speak of some kind of special interest, whether it be movies, music, art or the origin of the word "bohemian." (Tilda Swinton's character overtly references Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai.) What does this say about us? Are we just passing time here? Perhaps the most telling element of all is the title, The Limits of Control. If you stay past the end credits, Jarmusch flashes up four more words: "No Limits, No Control." The words here are used as opposites. Our Lone Man seems always in control, but in fact there's no such thing as total control. Neither is there any such thing as a "limit," as Descas says in his line about the universe. What's taking place outside, or within this story, the title asks.

I'm not pretending to have answers for all this stuff, and there's probably a lot more in there, but it's clear that the movie was very deliberately crafted and is ripe for interpretation. This of course will cut down on the number of people who will actually see the film, given that large audiences -- the ones that make up the Monday morning box office report -- usually like things with plots and answers; ambiguity or thinking is out of the question. If you're a critic and you believe that your job is to speak directly to these people, or to predict the film's mass appeal and box office potential, then you're probably right to dismiss the film. (Certainly, I would hesitate to recommend this to my dad, and I'd be the last to argue that it's going to make any money.) However, if you believe that it's your job to open up a small group of daring viewers to exciting new experiences, then this film should be highly recommend.

What's very odd is that The Limits of Control very closely resembles Jarmusch's earlier films Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), both subversive, mysterious retakes of familiar genres. All three films had gorgeous cinematography, deadpan tones, enigmatic heroes and artsy, complex music scores by pop musicians. But while the previous two received generally good reviews, the new one is getting outright panned. The main difference that I can detect between this one and the previous two is that the new film isn't quite as funny; it doesn't have that Jarmuschian deadpan humor. The deadpan is there, but it flows more into a place of cosmic meditation, rather than laughs.

As for the question of "too cool for its own good," that seems more like a problem with the critics, rather than a problem with the film. Jarmusch has assembled a "cool" cast (Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, etc.), and a "cool" cinematographer (Christopher Doyle), and a "cool" musician (Japanese group Boris) for a "cool" score. But the film clears the slate of such things, and asks whether Isaach De Bankolé has enough allure for an audience to follow him for two hours with very little dialogue, history or interpersonal relationships. If so, why? To generalize and categorize the whole movie as an exercise in cool -- and to confuse cool actors with cool characters -- is too easy and too lazy. To accuse a filmmaker or a film of coolness -- or to praise a film or a filmmaker for the same thing -- is hardly the point of film criticism.

The Limits of Control is a gorgeous and mesmerizing film, alive in nearly every shot and beautifully mysterious. One character talks about molecules moving around in ecstasy, and I think this film has that kind of mystery; something is always happening on some other level. Perhaps we can't see it or comprehend it on the first try, but that's not a reason to dismiss it.

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