Movie Review: Jim Jarmusch's 'The Limits of Control' Tests Your Patience

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

"The Limits of Control" reveals the limits of director Jim Jarmusch, whose movies tend to be melancholy meditations on male soloism. He's explored this territory for years, from the wandering loneliness of a Manhattan hipster in 1984's "Stranger Than Paradise" to the wandering loneliness of a past-his-prime Don Juan in 2005's "Broken Flowers." Those movies are quiet and contemplative and a bit remote, but they at least have characters who begin to feel and change and wrangle with their self-imposed isolation. "The Limits of Control" has no emotion, no compelling characters, no unity of effect and, consequently, no good reason to be seen.

It does have great actors slumming as vague philosophical notions, though. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael García Bernal pass in front of Jarmusch's camera and say weird things: non sequiturs, platitudes, riddles. A lone man in a sharkskin suit (played by French African actor Isaach De Bankolé) encounters each of them while on an undefined criminal mission in Spain. He must rely on these strange people to lead him from clue to clue, location to location, till he arrives at his mark. It's kind of like "Alice in Wonderland," but without any sense of wonder or discovery or even dread.

Case in point: About halfway through the movie, the lone man has a rendezvous with Swinton's character, who is costumed in a white wig, white cowboy hat, white trench coat, white boots and white-framed sunglasses.

They sit at a cafe. She orders a water. He orders two espressos.

"Sometimes, I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything," the Swinton character says.

And then they sit there, not saying anything.

Other lines are equally aggravating: "Reality is arbitrary." "The universe has no center and no edges." "Among us there are those that are not among us." And "The best films are like dreams you're never sure you really had."

And the dumbest films are like waking nightmares.

Jarmusch has taken the idea of a caper, drained it of plot and action and suspense, and set it against an absurdist background, where every symbol and person and incident should convey meaning but doesn't. He's tried to make a movie about how people create and perceive their own realities but are still subject to the controlling realities of others. But the film has no hook, no payoff and only a handful of shots and scenes that can be enjoyed for their visual beauty and composition.

Jarmusch would've been wise to pass his script to David Lynch, who is the master of stringing together bewildering images into something cogent and moving, even if we're not sure what the heck is happening on-screen.

The failure of "The Limits of Control" is not for lack of artistic inspiration. The title is borrowed from the 1975 essay by William S. Burroughs, the movie begins with a quotation from Arthur Rimbaud's 1871 poem "The Drunken Boat," and Jarmusch has said that the film draws elements from John Boorman's 1967 loner-on-a-mission film "Point Blank," which had Lee Marvin as the single-minded man on a perplexing journey. But "The Limits of Control" lacks the manic intelligence of the essay, the sensory delights of the poem and the wacky thrills of the Boorman movie.

If anything, "The Limits of Control" unintentionally becomes an example of a broken connection between a director and his audience. Unlike the lone man played by De Bankolé, the viewer will accept only so much flimflam in the course of a mission. The limit of Jim Jarmusch's control over the viewer is the exact point the movie starts unspooling on-screen.

The Limits of Control (116 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for violence, nudity, crude language and brief drug references.


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