The Limits Of Control

The Limits Of Control


Reviewed by: James Benefield

Jim Jarmusch’s last movie, Broken Flowers, saw him shift closer to the mainstream than ever before. However, with The Limits of Control he takes a defiant left turn away from it, down a decidedly bumpier road. It’s a purposefully indulgent movie and the result is a curate’s egg. But, as it shot by acclaimed DP Christopher Doyle, it’s a beautiful egg.

The plot, for one, is hard to get a grip on. Isaach De Bankolé plays an unnamed Lone Man, a walking enigma on a mysterious mission in modern-day Spain. It’s not clear what his purpose there is, or what exactly his meetings (in various locations in the country, including Madrid, Seville, on a train and in the countryside) actually amount to. We do know that the attendees are invariably starry, with Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal, cropping up throughout. The Lone Man meets with them, swaps matchboxes - which tend to contain small notes inscribed with hand written messages - and goes on his way. All messages are written in a mysterious code, made up of letters, numbers and symbols. On his time off the stranger visits art galleries, while retaining a professional abstinence, and distance, from drink, guns and sex.

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For such a chunky movie (it runs at a shade under two hours), it’s strange to find there’s not a lot in it. Instead, the action consists of repetitions, inversions, echoes and motifs which stretch out across its length (repeated phrases and actions, the continued use of the same incidental music). Its episodic narrative is self-consciously, and, perhaps, pretentiously, Kafka-esque (nothing is explicitly explained, it just happens, and any event inevitably straddles the line between the wry and the uncomfortable). The star names appear in glorified cameos for only a couple of minutes each. Swinton probably makes the biggest impression, not least because of her striking looks and attire, and her character’s singular penchant for old movies.

And due to all this, it’s a slow, perhaps difficult, watch. I suspect even Jarmusch’s most ardent fans will find longeurs. Considerable, and much-needed, flavour is added by Christopher Doyle’s divine cinematography, which is crisp, colourful and precise. There are some lovely images and they are edited together beautifully. The editing between opposing geometrically shaped objects and scenery is a motif that is fun and playful, and works; it is also reminiscent of something from an Eisenstein movie. This is where the lack of character development or traditional narrative pays dividends - the film’s intrinsic bagginess allows extended moments of this visual riffing.

But what does it all mean? Certainly, the film begins with a philosophical quotation and continues in a chin-stroking vein, with much cod (and noticeably wry) intellectualising throughout. There is a clear journey metaphor - what with beginning in an airport, long stretches of characters doing nothing but waiting and the baffling finale in a moving car - yet is it of any significance? Unfortunately Jarmusch’s ironic detachment sits uneasily with this philosophy, and his elusiveness is frustratingly vague. It does seem it’s a diversionary tactic for something that probably has little substance.

The Limits Of Control is a cool, glacial film full of intrigue and visual beauty. Ultimately it’s too detached and self-conscious to be anything else than an interesting experiment, and it’s certainly not a piece that stands up to Jarmusch’s best work. There isn’t enough developed, visible meat on its pretty bones to do anything but frustrate.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2009
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The Limits Of Control packshot
A mysterious man shares coffee and conversation with people, writing down details on matchbook flaps. But what are his motives?
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Read more The Limits Of Control reviews:

Val Kermode ***

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Writer: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Isaach De Bankolé, Alex Descas, Jean-François Stévenin, Óscar Jaenada, Luis Tosar, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, Youki Kudoh, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Hiam Abbass, Bill Murray, Héctor Colomé, María Isasi, Norma Yessenia Paladines

Year: 2009

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: Spain, US, Japan


SSFF 2009
London 2009

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