Jim Jarmusch makes outsider travelogues, but he may never have crafted one so oblique and deliberately reclusive as The Limits of Control. Tiny nuggets of plot are buried in elliptical encounters, or maddeningly obscure and puzzling scenes, depending upon your point of view. Jarmusch weaves a tapestry of spoken allusions (William Burroughs, The Lady From Shanghai), visual restraint and suggestive musical tones around a scowlingly stoic performance by Isaach De Bankolé. Trapped in the warp and weft is a kind of anti-thriller where nothing much happens on the surface and all the action is between the edits.
A Lone Man (De Bankolé) accepts a mysterious job from an unusual pair of wise guys. The nature and objective of the assignment are not revealed, and the basic instructions are almost comically drawn from a b-movie espionage script: “go to the café, wait a couple of days, look for the violin.” The gangsters speak a few indecipherable lines (“everything is imagined”; “the universe has no center and no edges”) and offer one pivotal piece of advice: use your skills, and your imagination.
And he does. The Lone Man obeys both the formal and implied instructions, sipping espresso in cafes and trading matchbooks with one curious informant after another. Each matchbook contains a coded message upon a square of paper which the Man reads, chews and swallows. The messages, like the larger context of the film, are never explicitly translated for us. As is, however, they’re more than suggestive enough: the specifics of the text do not matter.
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding audiences have, I think, with respect to movies that play out in a languid, dreamlike manner. The temptation is to zone out, to float on the wave of images and sound. That is easy to do here. The Lone Man even zones out occasionally, each time to a specific musical cue. Elsewhere, he and we are jointly invited to lose time appreciating the nude beauty of Paz de la Huerta, who plays a temptress that I do not believe actually exists, at least within the context of the non-story Jarmusch is telling.
The Man rebuffs the easy distraction of zoning out to the Nude (as de la Huerta is credited) instead focusing his energies on the task at hand. It’s not difficult to infer that Jarmusch is suggesting we do the same. That task involves an almost active parody of espionage conventions as various contacts float into the Lone Man’s orbit, perhaps to digress on a topic or simply recontextualize one of the mysterious lines spoken by the wise guys who set the job in motion.
The contacts are all acted by notable luminaries (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Hiam Abbas) but their natures and place within the narrative (inasmuch as one exists) can be difficult to decipher. Swinton (credited as ‘Blonde’) could be a Jarmusch analog, as her deliberate style, white hair and love of cinema would suggest. But she also could be a phantom, merely part of the process of the Man using his imagination. Or both. The film is quite accommodating in that way.
Uncluttered scenes, here at least, are an invitation to contemplate the relationship between De Bankolé and the scenario his character may well be constructing for himself. In the scant days since I’ve seen the film, I have vacillated between believing that many of his encounters are objectively real and feeling quite convinced that none of them are. A distant helicopter and several paintings may be the only elements that anyone outside the Lone Man’s head would be able to see.
Or, rather than another point in a line described by Le Samourai and Point Blank (both of which are referred to by cinematograhper Christopher Doyle, more restrained here than usual) is the entire enterprise a political statement? When Bill Murray appears late in the game as the American, it is impossible not to see Dick Cheney in his balding pate, dark suit and vulgar sense of entitlement. Jarmusch has said his films look at America through foreign eyes, and that notion is very much at work here as our popular cinema conventions are shredded and discarded. The lesson suggested by the film’s title comes into play here, too; whatever reality the Man is able to construct for himself, his skills and imagination can only do so much.
As is almost always the case in a Jarmusch film, music is a character of its own. Droning soundscapes from Sunn O))) and Boris mark the appearance of the Man’s contacts, and the character’s fugues are marked by tracks by a band featuring the filmmaker. As the film builds to something like a climax the reverb-heavy tones of Earth slip in, and those scenes even nod towards ‘Black Wings’ by Tom Waits, a song which does not appear in the film but shares a similar tone and ideas.
Make no mistake; The Limits of Control can be exceptionally demanding, even to an audience that has fully come to terms with other Jarmusch films like Dead Man. But it is unique and oddly complete. Just how it is complete will be a bit different for everyone. It’s easy to call that sort of ‘fill in the blanks’ storytelling lazy, but one thing is certain: Jarmusch isn’t requiring us to do anything he’s not asking of his own characters.