The Limits Of Control
Book ended by scenes of physical transformation in transit stations – our hit man protagonist simply entitled ‘lone man’ changing into and then out of his professional attire – it is clear that Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature The Limits of Control (hereafter: Limits) is all about the journey rather than the destination. A measured and meditative piece Limits is a beautifully realised ode cinema.
Ostensibly another existential treatment of the hit man genre, reminiscent of the director’s 1999 low-fi hit man pic Ghost Dog, Limits goes several steps further; eschewing a regular narrative structure in favour of a more freeform cinematic framework. The obvious comparison to make would be with the work of David Lynch. In fact Limits is like mid-90s-Lynch (Lost Highway) meets Monte Hellman (Two-lane Blacktop) by way of Linklater (Waking Life) and Rivette (Out 1) whilst retaining Jarmusch’s characteristic stamp. Unlike Lynch, Jarmusch provides a clear conceptual narrative framework – lone hit man (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé) engages in a job and slowly but inexorably makes his way towards his target to achieve his goal – even if that framework never really gets filled in. Instead our unnamed protagonist walks through a series of encounters with a variety of persons loosely defined by their role in his contract. Each encounter plays out like an existential vignette not unlike the structure employed by the director in his 2003 assemblage Coffee and Cigarettes.
These encounters are marked by a series of consistently repeating exchanges: our lone gunman goes to a café, sits outside and orders two shots of espresso in separate cups – both of which he drinks. A contact arrives and identifies him with a question, “You don’t speak Spanish, right?” followed by the passing of similarly branded but differently coloured matchboxes containing the next direction for his journey in the form of paper notes with codes written on them. This recycling is not limited to setting but applies also to characters and, more importantly, dialogue. E.g. Tilda Swinton’s bewigged ‘blond’, in a comically self-conscious moment from Jarmush, says something akin to ‘I like films where the main characters sit in silence’ to the ‘lone man’ who sits stoically listening to her ramble. ‘Blond’ later appears again on a movie poster in the background of another scene. The entire cryptic dialogue from the film’s opening scene where ‘lone man’ recieves his contract in an airport transit lounge is eventually repeated throughout the rest of the film: in the words of a flamenco dance song, on a sign on the back of a truck, in posters on a wall, in the words of a contact or passing person in the street. Even as our protagonist says virtually nothing; being talked at in a similar fashion to Linklater’s somnolent ‘philosophy student’ in his 2001 animated feature Waking Life.
Our silent hit man also makes regular visits to a Spanish art gallery where he silently contemplates works which at first foreshadow significant action to come and later are themselves foreshadowed by events that have recently occurred. These cyclic patterns – a device regularly employed by Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk (The Isle; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring; 3 Iron) – gives the viewer points of focus and sets a kind of visual rhythm to which the film moves; pictorially matching the filmmaker’s customary bent for strong stylish soundtracks, including music by Boris, Bad Rabbit, and LCD Soundsystem.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Paranoid Park, Hero) captures the Spanish locations in all their arid beauty giving Jarmusch a rich visual palette to work with. De Bankolé’s character is himself visual statement, always decked out in a range of stylish colour coded suits (despite his limited baggage) which sometimes absorb him into his setting and sometimes puts him at odds with it, e.g. in a scene where he walks through some dusty rural hellhole and the impoverished youngsters he passes ask him if he is an American gangster.
The film is stacked with an interesting array of ‘name’ actors placing another tick in their artistic credibility box, including John Hurt (, Hellboy films), Tilda Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia), Gael García Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries), and perennial Jarmusch regular Bill Murray personifying all that is hated about the late Bush administration. Like our hit man, none of these characters are named but each provides a differing lens through which to view him, and consequently the film.
Like the film, I return to my beginning: Limits is about the journey – physical and spiritual – of our seldom spoken hit man rather than various pieces of action he engages in as well as about the journey of we the audience. The ultimate outcome of this trip is the elucidation of Jarmusch’s love for the cinematic medium: from the stunningly beautiful shot sequences, to the intuitive matching of the soundtrack, to the political and philosophical exegesis in which he engages. Those who can let go of any narrative expectations I’m sure will enjoy the ride as much as I did.
NB: This s a revised version of a review the author posted on The Lumière Reader as part of their NZ International Film Festival coverage for 2009.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Contains offensive language and nudity
Duration: 116 mins
Genre: Existential Hit man-on-the-Road Drama (you know the type!)
Director: Jim Jarmusch (2009)
Actors: Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, and Bill Murray.
Language: English | Spanish | Hebrew | French | Japanese (with English subtitles)
Release Date: 01 Oct 2009 @ Academy Cinemas, Auckland.