The Limits of Control is pretentious, self-indulgent and slow but it is also ‘A Film By Jim Jarmusch’ so immediately these negatives turn into positives.
The opening quote for the movie is from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’ (The Drunken Boat): “As I descended into impossible rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen”. This should alert casual viewers to the fact they are not about to be subjected to some standard action packed thriller.
Jarmusch is not your man if what you want is Mission Impossible type shenanigans.In one scene our hero stands outside a heavily guarded building; in the next he is inside. “How did you get in?” he is asked, not unreasonably. “I used my imagination” he replies deadpan.
Isaach De Bankolé plays a hit man who, like the rest of the cast, has no name – he is referred to in the credits only as Lone Man. To gain access to his target he has to make contact with a series of intermediaries who pass him coded messages in matchboxes which he reads and swallows immediately.
The spoken instructions of how to find these people are equally enigmatic “go to the towers”, “watch for the violin” – “see the bread” – “the guitar will find you”.
Repetition and ritual are key themes in the movie – both in terms of language and action. It is set in Spain and when each of these contacts meet him they all say the same thing (in Spanish) – “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” . “No” he replies (in English). Each then has a brief monologue during which they ask “Are you interested in ………..?” reflecting respectively on music , film , science , art and hallucinations .
If Lone Man is, indeed, interested in any of these topics he keeps it to himself. He is a man of few words and lets others do the talking. In one encounter, Blonde (Tilda Swinton) says “Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there not saying anything” after which they both sit in silence.
Lone Man has a strict working code – no guns, no sex and no mobile phone . His ‘uniform’ consists of a series of immaculate silk suits which he never takes off even when sleeping.
His way of unwinding is to perform T’ai Chi type exercises (still in his suit obviously). The fact that he can resist the statuesque and permanently naked Paz de la Huerta tells us that this is a man with genuine willpower – her perfect behind would be the downfall of lesser men!
As with all Jarmusch movies the soundtrack is sensational. He is one of an elite group of directors who really knows how to use music to create a visual atmosphere;.
In a recent Wire interview he said “I love music so much it’s dismaying to me to see it reduced to wallpaper”. The Limits of Control features instrumentals by his own band , Bad Rabbit, alongside what he calls the “slo-motion psychedelic rock’n’roll” of Earth, Sunn 0)) and principally Boris. Even if you don’t tune in to the movie you’d have to have dead ears not to appreciate this music.
The Limits of Control is a Zen thriller and like all the best movies it provides more questions than answers. For instance, we are left to decode the significance of lines like “everything in subjective”, “results are arbitrary” or “the universe has no centre and no edges”. Personally I think that the moral of the tale is that ultimately ‘Life is not worth anything’ (“La vida non vale nada”) but this doesn’t mean everything is permitted. After all, in a life with no limits there is no control.