Limits of Control, The: Jarmusch's New Film

 By Michael T. Dennis


Part puzzle, part endurance test, Jim Jarmusch’s new film, “The Limits of Control” draws from myriad sources to present something that is unlike anything the original, diverse indie director has done before, which is why it fits so neatly into his oeuvre.


As is known, Jarmusch does not make typical films.  Since exploding onto the independent film scene in 1984 with “Stranger Than Paradise,” each of his films presents a challenge to viewers and conventions alike.  This fact should serve as a guiding principle when watching “The Limits of Control”. 


Isaach De Bankolé stars as a nameless man on an undefined mission.  We first encounter him in an airport bathroom, practicing tai chi before slipping into an expensive suit and meeting with two shadowy men who give him cryptic instructions.  His stone face and sparse words convey machine-like precision.  He takes his orders and leaves.


Thus begins a string of events that could perhaps be called a plot, but only if the term is used loosely.  The Lone Man arrives in Spain where he has been told to await further instructions.  He receives them in the form of a coded note hidden inside a matchbook that is passed onto him by an anonymous contact.  He studies the note for a moment, then eats it, washing it down with a shot of espresso.


This pattern is repeated many times, with matchbooks and information changing hands during brief encounters with a long list of peculiar characters.  Each one is a step closer to an unstated goal.  Through it all the Lone Man leads an ascetic life, refusing sex, friendship, or anything else that would distract him from his work or threaten his self-control.  This is a man who sleeps fully dressed and whose idea of relaxation involves listening to Schubert while staring at the display on the CD player ticking off the seconds.


When he finally does confront his target the moment is hardly the climax one might anticipate.  Instead it's just another step in the process, the next-to-last page in a user's manual.  Any success the Lone Man achieves is attributable to his stubborn refusal to deviate from the plan, even though he (and we) are largely unaware of what that plan may entail.  In this way a certain amount of faith is called for: faith in oneself, and in the system that one has submitted to.  When the Lone Man observes one of his contacts being abducted on the street it seems obvious that whatever mistake she may have made was likely a small misstep—with fatal consequences.


Jarmusch takes what screen time might have been consumed by plot and instead contemplates his perfectly steady protagonist.  The Lone Man is in almost every scene, and his physical presence tells much of the story in the way he moves with deft purpose through the film's varied environments, from modern industrial cityscapes to isolated, rustic hideouts.  Slight shifts in his facial expression give away a whole host of emotions that he cannot afford to make apparent to those around him.  All of this is accomplished through a tightly controlled visual strategy in which reflective surfaces, repeated images, and negative space serve the needs of Jarmusch's narrative and intellectual themes.


Stark imagery and a deliberate pace could lead to a loss of interest, but the parade of eccentric contacts that contrast the Lone Man provides just enough relief.  There's Tilda Swinton as a blonde movie buff, William Hurt as a guitar-toting oldster, and Gael García Bernal as a novice agent.  (In five minutes of screen time, each of them utters more dialogue than De Bankolé does in the entire film.)  There's also Paz de la Huerta as an unwanted partner at one of the Lone Man's stopovers.  The would-be Bond girl is only ever seen in various stages of undress, but her lusty animal charms are lost on the celibate professional.


Venturing beyond just a character portrait, “The Limits of Control” takes on the hit man thriller form not only by distilling it to its most basic elements, but by including layer upon layer of intertextual reference.  Swinton's character refers to Orson Welles's “The Lady from Shanghai” and traces of Jarmusch's admitted influences, from “Le Samourai” to “Point Blank”, are also evident.  An eclectic international cast projects a new cosmopolitan glaze over the classic crime story.  Taken together, these choices produce a film that can't help but break with expectations while remaining located in a familiar genre.


Defying expectations has been Jarmusch's specialty since his 1984 breakthrough “Stranger Than Paradise”.  Independently produced with a very modest budget, the evocative power his film achieved despite its technical simplicity served as a wake-up call to other young filmmakers, many of whom went on to be major players in the independent movement of the '90s.


Jarmusch rode the wave he helped galvanize.  In 1995 he took on genre deconstruction in a major way with “Dead Man”, starring Johnny Depp.  Radical even by the standards of a revisionist Western, it attacked both the myth of the American West and the storytelling modes that have been used to tell about it.  Cultural fusion was next on the Jarmusch menu in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) which featured Forest Whitaker as a hit man living by the samurai code in an urban world more accustomed to hip hop music than ritual swordplay.


In the current decade Jarmusch has made inroads toward gaining a broader audience, packing mainstream celebrities into his 2003 vignette film “Coffee and Cigarettes” and following Bill Murray on a dark comic quest for his estranged son in “Broken Flowers” (2005).


Murray appears again in “The Limits of Control”, but this is a film for thinkers, not laughers.  Chase sequences are conspicuously absent and humor comes from the awkward pause rather than the one-liner.  The pairing of Jarmusch's focused control of his film with the same level of intentionality shown by his character leaves a feeling that the limits described in the title might be necessary parameters for doing good work.




Lone Man – Isaach De Bankolé

Creole – Alex Descas

Nude – Paz de la Huerta

Mexican – Gael García Bernal

Guitar – John Hurt

Blonde – Tilda Swinton

American – Bill Murray




Entertainment Farm and PointBlank Films

Distributed by Focus Features

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Producers, Jon Kilik, Yukie Kito, Carter Logan, Gretchen McGowan, Stacey E. Smith

Cinematography, Christopher Doyle

Film Editing, Jay Rabinowitz

Production Design, Eugenio Caballero