Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Limits of Control

Allow me to start this review by simply jumping to the lede, if you don't like Jim Jarmusch or have not watched enough of his films to base an opinion on him, do not watch The Limits of Control. Possibly the most "pretentious" film the minimalistic auteur has ever made, it alienated the critical community upon release and makes the rest of his work look mainstream in comparison.

Happily, I am a Jim Jarmusch fan, though that doesn't make this film any less daunting. I'm no stranger to his hip, stark irony, but with The Limits of Control Jarmusch strips film down to its barest elements, a literal take on the title of Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. A deadpan mixture of Le Samouraï and Waiting For Godot, The Limits of Control represents the apex of just how Jarmsuch-y Jarmsuch can be: if he takes anything else out of the cinematic equation he'd just be a guy on street corners yelling about being on-screen.

Limits follows an unnamed assassin known as the Lone Man (Issach de Bankolé), an appropriately stoic fellow who looks like a freshly chiseled statue. Over the course of two hours, he wonders Spain from café to café, intercepting instructions from couriers that lead only to yet more couriers. Like Godot, the film is concerned less with an expected action than the expectation itself.

Each of the characters Lone Man meets has a distinct quirk, their names -- Guitar (John Hurt), Mexican (Gael Garcia Bernal) -- matching the bare structure of the film. Numerous visual and spoken references to cinema are made, from the film's broad appropriation of Antonioni's sense of ennui to a spoken reference to Aki Kaurismäki by Guitar and a discussion with a platinum-blond Tilda Swinton about Rita Hayworth's own dye-job in The Lady from Shanghai. Lone Man spends much of his free time in art galleries, and Schubert's name is floated about at times. Jarmusch mocks the spy/hitman convention of the required female sexuality by casting a woman (Pax de la Huerta) in the role of Nude; see if you can guess what her particular trait is.

The Limits of Control goes nowhere and it doesn't get there with any speed, yet, in its own quiet way, it's as much a celebration of the cinema as Quentin Tarantino's slice of movie revelry Inglourious Basterds. More so, even, as Jarmusch's open consideration of other media such as painterly art and classical movement and its existential and scientific philosophizing brings him closer to the more sophisticated and well-read Godard (Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote of Tarantino and Godard that weighing the two was "like comparing a combined museum, library, film archive, record shop, and department store with a jukebox, a video-rental outlet, and an issue of TV Guide," a statement I find harsh but not exactly indefensible). Jarmusch seems to be having just as much fun as Tarantino did, and, like the B-movie-obsessed auteur's Jewish revenge tale, there's more here than meets the eye.

Not that it isn't entirely pleasant to sit back and let the eyes have a field day, however. Jarmusch made some visually striking works with Robby Müller, but his cinematographer here is the great Christopher Doyle, one of the finest in the business today. You may know him from his work with Wong Kar-wai (if you don't, rectify this immediately), and I'm amazed to say that his work here not only rivals his contributions to Wong's canon but exceeds it in places. He captures in minute details the wonder's of de Bankolé's magnificent face and captures the streets of Spain with breathtakingly simple beauty. Occasionally, he lets the sunlight bleed into the frame, creating an impressionistic wash of colors. Don't expect anything from this film to come up during awards season, but the only other film that can compete with Doyle's work is Alexis Zabe's poetic photography for Silent Light.

The closest the film comes to action occurs in the closest thing it has to a climax, when Lone Man meets American (Bill Murray), a foul-mouthed man who lambastes everything that came up in discussion over the course of the film, dismissing them as bohemian distractions. Murray is clearly channeling Dick Cheney, which makes his appearance in a random bunker all the funnier. His presence adds a political aspect to the film, though I'm damned if I know what it is other than a vague commentary on perceived American superiority and a conservative disregard for the beauty of the world (his bunker isn't quite ascetic with its extra furniture, but it's amusing that the only discernible wall "decoration" is a fire extinguisher).

The Limits of Control repeats phrases and scenes with minor variations, to the point that it's easy to doze off in its repetition and come back to the film later and feel that nothing's changed; however, its cross between the hitman genre and a vignette style should give fans of Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes (or really any of the director's early work) a tether to the Jarmusch they know and love. The DVD comes with the typical pullquotes, and the blurbs calling it a "stylish and sexy thriller" that "shimmers with heat and suspense" are about as funny as anything in the actual movie. I cannot definitively say what it's about or even what I think it's about, but I also don't entirely care. Sure, this movie is so narrow in its appeal that I feel I not only need to wear a beret while watching the film but find a way to hook that beret on cigarettes; but if I genuinely loved this film, will gladly watch it again soon to figure out more of the puzzle and find it almost as immediately arresting as the best of Jarmusch's work, am I really pretentious?

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