The Limits of Control Review

When we first meet The Limits of Control’s mysterious protagonist, played with cool mystique by Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé, he is in a bathroom stall practicing tai chi. Slipping into his sharp monochrome suit, he meets two equally mysterious men at an airport who give him cryptic messages.

Named only in the credits as “Lone Man,” he travels from place to place, waits in hotel rooms, orders two espressos he insists on being served in two separate cups, and exchange pertinent matchboxes with various secret contacts, each of them offering more cryptic conversations. The way Jarmusch acquaints us with the Lone Man is deceptively clever. He doesn’t bother with introduction or information, only behavior. It’s the most effective way of describing a character. When Lone Man orders the same drink each time, we know he is particular. When he carefully folds his suit in his hotel rooms, we know he is disciplined. When he reads a mathematical equation and swallows the paper, implying memorization, we know that he has a brilliant mind. Then, despite not knowing who he is or what he does, when we see him expertly snatch and dismantle a gun, we can guess that he’s dangerous. The narrative drive of The Limits of Control is closely tied to the curiosity of learning more and more about this stoic man.

Some of Lone Man's weird contacts include a movie buff Tilda Swinton, a disheveled Mexican cowboy Gael Garcia Bernal, a molecule-obsessed Youki Kudoh and a George Bush-lookalike Bill Murray. The premise of these encounters sound comical, like something out of Coffee & Cigarettes, but Jarmusch doesn’t play them for comedy much—the only laugh out loud moment being Tilda Swinton’s “I like movies where people just sit, not saying anything” line, followed by an awkward two-shot of Swinton and Bankolé sitting, not saying anything. Each encounter is treated the way it would be in a thriller, where clues are revealed and the hero takes one step closer towards the bad guy. The difference is that here, the film doesn’t explain the clues for the audience.

A message from the French mob is revealed to be the lyrics of a Spanish ballad. A violinists’ last words are printed on the back of a truck in another city. A woman’s garb is seen on an old movie poster. A raincoat hanging in a bar foreshadows the death of a character. Lone Man takes note of all this, and so do we, but he has the capacity of putting them together while we’re just following his lead. We know they’re connected, but how? We never find out. This sort of elliptical storytelling may confuse and frustrate the audience, but only when they hang on to the notion of plot being the main component of a film. Jarmusch distills a Hitchcockian mystery movie into pure moments enjoyable for their craft, rather than interrupt them with a story. Somehow, that makes it more of a mystery—though not an empty one. When one person kills another and both don national flags on their outfits, you might not get the whole story, but you get the gist of the emotion being conveyed.

The real crowning achievement of the film is in its construction. Just like how Lone Man is drawn to continue from one place to the next by what he sees and hears, Jarmusch draws the viewer using a combination of audio and visual beauty. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is stark gorgeous even when it’s just shots of the interior of a hotel room, especially combined with the reeling shoegaze music. The story can change depending on anyone’s imagination—I have mine—but the scenes stay the same, and they are strong. It may not be an easy film to penetrate, but if you get into the groove and the cool sureness of it’s style, it can be a hypnotic experience.

"The Limits of Control" opens May 1, 2009 and is rated R. Crime-Thriller. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Gael Garcia Bernal, Tilda Swinton, Isaach De Bankolé.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for


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