Jim Jarmusch is a model of stylistic consistency who emerged as a full-blown talent and erupts once a decade—Stranger Than Paradise in the ’80s, Dead Man in the ’90s, The Limits of Control today.
An acutely self-aware, anti-psychological character study, The Limits of Control focuses on the archetype of the Hitman. Jarmusch sets his self-contained, catalytic anti-hero (French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé) in a semi-documentary landscape and contemplates his progress with a quasi-religious sense of awe.
Identified in the credits as the Lone Man, Jarmusch’s protagonist exists only in terms of his unspecified mission, or his role in what is perhaps a conspiracy. The Lone Man is introduced in an overhead shot doing tai chi in an airport toilet stall, then taking a meeting in the first-class lounge. A few inexplicable aphorisms later, he’s traveling through Spain by train, grooving on a landscape shot by Christopher Doyle and soundwashed in hyperdrone acid jazz (courtesy of the band Boris). Like everything Jarmusch, The Limits of Control is calibrated for cool.
The Lone Man is a creature of habit, defined by his idiosyncrasies (insisting on two espressos in separate cups) and his reserved response to his invariably eccentric contacts. All this killer need do is show up and acknowledge the password (“You don’t speak Spanish, right?”) to receive a coded message passed in matchbox and set off his contact’s solo riff. De Bankolé’s voluble co-stars include Tilda Swinton (a refugee from Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong in blonde wig and matching Stetson), John Hurt (babbling about Bohemia, bohemians, and “an oddly beautiful Finnish film”), Gael García Bernal (in manic mode), and Bill Murray (identified as “The American” and channeling Donald Rumsfeld).
Madrid and next-stop Seville are filled with obvious spies. It’s borderline risible when the Lone Man finds a naked girl with a gun (Paz de la Huerta) lolling on his hotel room bed or when Swinton begins holding forth on the nature of old movies: “Sometimes, I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything,” she adds by way of acknowledging De Bankolé’s silence. That’s Jarmuschian humor. His movies are typically based on a series of whimsical two-handers: In The Limits of Control, these meet-cutes have been boiled down to a set of absurd, enigmatic repetitions. Led to a “closed” flamenco bar, the Lone Man watches a rehearsal in which the singer delivers dialogue from the movie’s first scene with such excessive stylization that it inspires the flicker of a smile on his normally inexpressive face.
By the time the Lone Man is given an ancient guitar, from which he removes a single string, and, told that “the Mexican will find you—he has the driver,” travels to a forsaken town in the middle of nowhere, he might be wandering through the afterlife. The landscape goes through cosmic changes en route to a pueblo that looks like it was last inhabited by the cast of a spaghetti Western. But even as he ventures deeper off the map in a truck with the bumper sticker “La vida no vale nada” (“Life is worthless”), there’s no missing the Lone Man’s uncanny wardrobe—a succession of stylish suits with color-coordinated shirts that could hardly fit in his elegant, ridiculously small travel bag.
The Limits of Control is a shaggy dog story, but it’s leaner and less precious (and more beautiful) than the past few Jarmusch films—not to mention his last exercise in existential assassinitis, the 1999 Forest Whittaker vehicle Ghost Dog. The Lone Man traverses the empty streets and barren landscapes of an abstract thriller, glimpsing previously met characters (or their images), engaging in mysterious transactions (a fistful of diamonds here, an earful of Schubert there), and trafficking in the free-floating symbols of a surrealist poem. His steps are guided by picture postcards or red flowers found lying in some stone-paved alley. Tracked by (or following) the same black helicopter from city to city, chased by kids who ask if he’s an American gangster, he lives in a world of allegory and myth.
Mission accomplished, the Lone Man ponders an Arte Povera white canvas and rope assemblage in Madrid’s Reina Sofía museum. What does it mean? The contents of the package are unknowable; the twine that wraps around its enigma is everything.