Film review – The Limits of Control (2009)

Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé)
Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé)

For almost thirty years now the auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been creating a body of work that is the epitome of cinematic cool. Jarmusch’s films are defined by their hip blend of droll humour, minimalism and more recently, spirituality. Jarmusch seems to draw his inspiration from a variety of diverse sources but in his latest film The Limits of Control it appears that the films of European art house heavy weights Michelangelo Antonioni (in particular The Passanger) and Wim Wenders seem to be his main points of reference. In Jarmusch’s most minimalist film yet, The Limits of Control depicts the actions of the Lone Man who travels across Spain collecting clues and exchanging information in order to fulfil his unknown mission. Played by Isaach De Bankolé, who played the ice-cream vendor in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and the French taxi driver in Night on Earth (also Jarmusch), the Lone Man has a photographic memory, is ultra disciplined and is almost a complete blank slate. The ensemble of mysterious people he meets during his mission all deliver abstract instructions, strange philosophical advice and musings on topics such as music, film, science, bohemians and hallucinogenic drugs.

Blonde (Tilda Swinton)
Blonde (Tilda Swinton)

The Limits of Control is in many ways a companion piece to Jarmusch’s previous film Broken Flowers as it is structurally similar and spends a lot of time focusing on the ‘dead time’ in life that is occupied by waiting for something to happen or being in transit. However, The Limits of Control has even less narrative drive than Broken Flowers making it a more meditative experience. The repetition of dialogue, actions and motifs plays a big part in The Limits of Control giving it a Zen like quality that is akin to dreaming. As the woman who is simply known as Blonde (Tilda Swinton) says, “The best films are like dreams you’re never really sure you had”. There are many self-reflexive moments in The Limits of Control but this line of dialogue is probably the most revealing.

The key to what makes The Limits of Control such a rich cinematic experience is the cinematography by Christopher Doyle. Doyle is arguably the greatest working cinematographer today and The Limits of Control is as much his film as it is Jarmusch’s. Doyle’s cinematography is as close to perfection as you can get and every shot is immaculately framed. The Limits of Control is an exquisite visual accomplishment.

"THE LIMITS OF CONTROL"It feels as if Jarmusch has been building to a film like The Limits of Control for a long time now and although it is a magnificent work it does lack some of the humour and humanity of previous work, in particular Down By Law and his masterpiece Dead Man. Nevertheless, this is a film worth seeing and savouring. It is a sort of puzzle where you could spend a lot of – possibly fruitless – time attempting to decode and explain it. But in a very general sense it is a film about the power of abstractions, such as film, art and music, to reflect life and by doing so transcend the limitations imposed on us through traditional notions of what constitutes as reality.  Sound reasonable?

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. “The best films are like dreams you’re never really sure you had”.

    Swinton has some great lines, doesn’t she? I don’t remember that one, but the one that got me was “I love it in films when people just sit there, saying nothing”, and “capturing the little details”.

    That’s exactly what I love about Jarmusch films and what struck me about Broken Flowers. In that film there’s one inconsequential shot where you see Murray driving the car down the road and there’s a truck ahead which approaches then passes and you see it in the rear view mirror slowly disappearing. For some reason, that detail (which few directors would have the patience for) really moved me and it’s what I remember most about the film. Which reinforces the concept that it’s not about the destination but the journey.

    Of course, you know from my review that I completely agree with you about the visuals. If nothing else, it’s one of the finest looking films anyone will see this year.

    The film is minimalist in terms of both dialogue and action and yet there’s so much going on beneath the surface. ** MORE SPOILERS ** Did you get the point about art vs politics? You know, we see Lone Man practicing Tai Chi (reminiscent of Whitaker in Ghost Dog), he visits art galleries, he rendez-vous with arty types who talk music, dance, philosphy, film, etc. John Hurt was a blast, with his clumsy following of protocol. ** END ALERT **

    Those repetitions of details were basically the same but yet different, and it was this aspect that reminded me of the 3 days of routine we see in Jeanne Dielman which recently screened at ACMI. How much more so does that film demand patience of an audience? I was amazed at how spellbound they were for three hours.

    I don’t normally give stars in my reviews (though I do record them in my own database). FWIW, I’d give this at least 4.5.

  2. Yep, I got the whole commentary about politics, which is partially why it reminded me of The Passenger I think. I did hesitate between giving it a 4 or a 4.5 but opted for 4 because I’ve previously given Jarmusch films that I’ve enjoyed a lot more (Down By Law, Broken Flowers) 4.5.

    Incidentally, Dead Man gets a 5!

  3. Interesting, will check this out, as a huge fan of Broken Flowers, I will go in, not expecting the same kind of experience, meditative films are definitely interesting though, check out the Thai movie Nymph, for more of that.

  4. Hi Kwenton. I actually think that The Limits of Control is comparable to Broken Flowers in many ways but I probably enjoyed Broken Flowers a little more. Once you’ve seen The Limits of Control please drop by again and let us know what you thought.

    Thanks for the tip on Nymph. The only Pen-Ek Ratanaruang film that I’ve seen is Last Life in the Universe and I did love that. Funnily enough, it is another film shot by the great Christopher Doyle.

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