‘The Limits of Control’ movie review: new Jim Jarmusch will test your patience

Or, The Limits of (Your) Patience. Jim Jarmusch goes all Godard-arty in The Limits of Control, a painfully slow-moving and (nearly) fatally pretentious film. Jarmusch has made some abstract films before, including the Johnny Depp Western Dead Man, but this is his strangest yet; I can’t imagine many enjoying the experience of sitting through it, but you just might appreciate it, and at the very least, you’ll be thinking about it for a while afterwards.

Isaach De Bankolé stars as an unnamed hitman (the credits deem him Lone Man) apparently on assignment in Spain (Madrid and elsewhere). He sleeps, stares at the wall, walks around, sits down at a café and orders two espressos in separate cups.

A contact appears, confirms that he doesn’t speak Spanish (“No hablas español, verdad?“), spouts off some obscure dialogue, and passes him a cigarette box that seems to contain instructions on a small piece of paper. He looks at the instructions, then eats the paper, just like Forest Whitaker did as the title character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

My theory: the contacts continue to talk in Spanish, which De Bankolé’s character cannot understand, and what we hear is what he imagines they might be saying.

This repeats itself six or so times. Lone Man’s contacts change – there’s Nude (Paz de la Huerta), Blonde (Tilda Swinton), Guitar (John Hurt), Mexican (Gael García Bernal) and so on – but the scenes rarely do. We never know what Lone Man’s assignments are, or what the slips of paper say. We just watch him go from point A to point B, with little to go on in order to interact with the film.

I’ve seen and enjoyed pretentious, slow-moving films in the past, like Gus Van Sant’s recent minimalist output of Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park, or Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, which follows a man driving around for an hour and a half, or (going for an extreme example) Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a static zoom shot that lasts 45 minutes.

In films like these, there’s usually a clear intellectual thesis that we can confront, undisturbed, while the events unfold. Or we can zone out and think of other things entirely, using the pictures as daydream springboards.

But there’s a lot going on in between the lines of The Limits of Control, and we’re missing all the basic information needed to confront it. It’s such an aloof, frustrating work: Jarmusch is daring to make sense of the film (the basic plot can be unraveled easily, but the filmmaker’s intent, not so much) and dropping all these surrealist hints so we’re never at peace.

In the great surrealist works, films by Buñuel or Lynch, we don’t need to decipher the clues while watching the film, the filmmaking craft is good enough to maintain our interest. Not the case here.

I do love the climactic scenes, which present an impenetrable fortress in the middle of the desert, and show us Lone Man receiving the blueprints, then scouting the building from afar. Then, of course, Jarmusch deprives us of any kind of suspense by just cutting to Lone Man inside the building. Bill Murray walks in and has the film’s best line, what we want to say: “How the eff did you get in?”

Location cinematography by Christopher Doyle is beautifully composed. As is the music, mostly drone-y acid jazz stuff by Japanese group Boris. If Jarmusch had just grounded this thing in reality, despite the pacing, this would have been a much more pleasing experience.

But it is what it is. You’ll love it or hate it, and I’ll cop out and rate it somewhere in between. But you will remember The Limits of Control, and it’s the kind of film that can inspire some spirited discussion over a couple espressos. Just don’t go in looking for any kind of entertainment; you’ll get more of that from the stuff they make you watch in film school.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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