‘The Limits of Control’

Jarmusch opts for frills rather than thrills in his spy movie


Anyone who’s ever seen a film by New York indie auteur Jim Jarmusch knows that the director’s work is an acquired taste. With his minimalist, deadpan sense of humor, his fixation on crossed signals and miscommunication, and that curious blend of existentialist angst and laconic cool intercut with moments of sheer poetic beauty, it’s a style that has seduced as many viewers as it’s bewildered.

Jarmusch has always been Jarmusch, though, a consistently singular filmmaker, gnawing on the same obsessions for three decades now, and with a handful of America’s best post-1970s films to his credit (“Down By Law,” “Mystery Train,” “Ghost Dog”).

If 2005’s “Broken Flowers” represented a pinnacle of sorts — with a Zenned-out Bill Murray as the ultimate Jarmusch protagonist — it also represented the most perfect distillation of his style to date, and hence, an ending of sorts.

The Limits of Control
Director Jim Jarmusch
Run Time 115 minutes
Language English

Thus Jarmusch’s latest, “The Limits Of Control,” sees the director coasting on all-too-familiar ground. He seems to be using the same ingredients, but instead of a sumptuous five-course-dinner, we get only reheated leftovers.

Jarmusch once described his 1991 film “Night On Earth” — a series of conversations in taxis — as made up of the kind of moments that exist between cuts in “normal” plot-driven movies; the bits where seemingly nothing happens. But in Jarmusch’s view, in that nothing is everything.

I don’t disagree with him, but “The Limits Of Control” takes this premise to some kind of logical extreme. Nominally a spy movie, with Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankole playing a taciturn hit man on a mysterious mission, “Limits” becomes a study of what happens when you remove all the things people like about spy movies, things like clever plotting, suspense, sex appeal.

What you end up with in this case is lots of shots of your hero lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Or reading little coded messages that the viewer is never privy to. Or sitting in cafes, drinking espressos, and listening to digressive monologues from whatever cool actors Jarmusch could cajole into showing up for a day or two. (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Youki Kudoh, et al.) Hell, Paz de la Huerta even turns up purring and stark naked on the hit-man’s hotel-room bed, and all he can say, when offered the pleasure of her body, is “never while on a job.”

Jarmusch is intent on denying us the joys of a 007 film, but he fails to offer anything substantive in its place. Like his weakest film to date, the episodic “Coffee and Cigarettes,” Jarmusch has lined up an impeccably cool cast, a suitably hip and underground soundtrack, and cinematography that’s been art-directed to death (courtesy of the ever-watchable Chris Doyle). What he’s failed to do is convince us there’s any real glue holding all this together. The film plays like this: De Bankole sits in a cafe; famous actor “A” shows up, recites a digressive monologue at the silent, inexpressive hit man, and walks off. Cut to de Bankole staring at the ceiling in the hotel again.

“The Limits of Control” turns out to be an absolutely epic example of a talented director disappearing up his own bunghole. (Something we’ve seen before in Wong Kar Wai’s “2046,” David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots”.) Like the nebulous, fuzzy drone-metal of Japanese band Boris that’s featured on its soundtrack, the film itself is an abstraction of an abstraction; this is art that’s so busy avoiding things — structure, melody, narrative, emotion, whatever — that it ends up being only what it isn’t. It never actually is anything.

It’s a sensation felt even more acutely as you progress through the film; Jarmusch opens with a quote from Rimbaud, the title is a quote from William S. Burroughs, the lead character is pitched somewhere between Alain Delon in “Le Samourai” (1967) and Lee Marvin in “Point Blank”(1967). — The list of references goes on and on, but like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” you begin to wonder if there’s a film in here, or just a list of things that Jarmusch thinks are cool. I mean, don’t give me a Rimbaud quote; give me some Rimbaud, that wild, mad, Dinoysian sense of abandon! Nothing could be further from that than this extremely poker-faced and mannered movie.