The Limits of Control

I’m going to write this review of Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control,” and then I’m going to read some of the film’s positive reviews, to see what it is that other people have gotten out of it that I have missed. Sometimes I recognize what a film was trying to do and conclude that it simply didn’t work for me. But in this case, I can’t even tell what was being attempted. And I’m smart! I swear to you, I am smart.

The main character in this quiet, almost action-free story is not given a name. He is played by Isaach De Bankole, though, so I’ll call him Isaach. Isaach is apparently an assassin or spy of some kind, meeting people in airports, getting assignments written in code, and then eating the paper they’re written on. He travels to Spain, where he spends his days drinking espressos at cafes and wandering around museums. He occasionally meets up with a contact who exchanges more codes with him. Sometimes these contacts — played by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, and John Hurt — try to engage him in conversation (or, in de la Huerta’s case, bedroom shenanigans), but Isaach always demurs. He barely says a word in the entire film.

Though the movie is 116 minutes long, its actual story could be conveyed in five. Isaach goes to Spain to complete a particular mission; he completes this mission with no impediments whatsoever; the end. We do not know who the subject of the mission is, or why this subject has been chosen. As mentioned, we don’t even know the name of the guy tasked with carrying out the mission. The five-minute story is stretched out through repetition: Isaach keeps going to the same cafe, keeps doing tai chi in his hotel room every morning, keeps passing the same museum, and so forth.

At one point Swinton’s character, trying to chat with Isaach, says, “Sometimes I like films where people just sit there, not saying anything.” Obviously this is Jarmusch showing self-awareness. He knows he has made a movie in which nothing happens, and in which it doesn’t happen to people we don’t know anything about. He has done this intentionally.

But why? I have no problem with languid films with wispy plots, where most of the action is internal. See, for example, “Silent Light,” “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” or even Jarmusch’s own “Broken Flowers.” The difference is that these films generally have a reason for their slowness. Their themes are reinforced by the manner in which the story is told. In “The Limits of Control,” I don’t see any themes at all, much less ones that are served by reducing the story to almost nothing.

What I think Jarmusch is doing is experimenting with the espionage genre. Flicks about hitmen are usually plot-heavy; this one, meanwhile, is quite the opposite. Yet it is not character-centered, either. It is a film full of nothing. Why is anyone supposed to watch it? To find mirth in Jarmusch’s deconstruction of the genre? Good for them if they do. I didn’t.

* * * *

After I wrote the above review, I read a few of the positive ones. In general, it seems the other critics saw the same things in the film that I did; the only difference is that they liked those things and I didn’t.

Betsy Sharkey at the Los Angeles Times says it’s “a little like guided meditation with suggestions floated, waiting, left untethered. It’s up to you to distill meaning — which will leave some convinced the director is merely self-indulgent, and others deeply satisfied.” She fell into the latter group.

The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis quotes Philip Glass, who said that repetitive music “must be listened to as a pure sound-event, an act without any dramatic structure,” then says: “At least for its first hour, before its repetition strategy turns tedious, the same could be said of ‘The Limits of Control,’ a nondramatic work best appreciated as a pure image-and-sound event.”

So there you go.

P.S. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is often rather lovely.

D- (1 hr., 56 min.; R, a lady who's naked a lot, one scene with a barrage of F-bombs.)