Fittingly, The Limits of Control opens with an awkward top-down shot of its protagonist silently practicing tai chi in an airport bathroom stall. The shot is claustrophobic, quiet, and protracted to the point that one wonders when anything is actually going to happen. Such is the initial impression left by Jim Jarmusch’s new film, a work confounding and reserved even by the director's own minimalist standards. Yet, as one would expect from an independent icon like Jarmusch, The Limits of Control offers a restrained artistic and intellectual tonic to the copious explosions and lame jokes that usually clutter cinema screens in summertime.
The plot, such as it exists, concerns the exploits of a nameless, stone-faced agent (Isaach de Bankolé) for a shadowy, nameless organization charged with assassinating a powerful, also nameless American (Bill Murray). Bankolé’s character, credited simply as the Lone Man, moves with a silent reserve through a series of meetings with other agents, receiving coded messages in matchboxes and giving audience to treatises on the value of the arts, science, and hallucinogens. Since Jarmusch’s camera never strays from the Lone Man’s perspective, and since the Lone Man is certainly not interested in verbally relaying any information to the audience, the American remains a necessarily abstract evil, never explicated and never even mentioned until the film’s final third.
Comparisons to Jarmusch’s existing oeuvre are only somewhat productive here. The conversational motif does appear a clever inversion of the formula Jarmusch deployed in Coffee and Cigarettes, as the discussions here are entirely one-sided and focus on perception rather than interaction. Much of the film, from its abstract, repetitious dialogue to its rich yet foreboding visual and sonic aesthetics, recalls David Lynch more than Jarmusch’s previous work. And this impression is only bolstered by Japanese drone-rockers Boris' ominous score, the more abstract and discordant passages of which unsettle the viewer in ways similar to frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s more recent work.
The complex themes and visionary imagery of The Limits of Control are clearly the work of an artist in firm command of his craft. Jarmusch is interested in exploring different notions of “control” that can arise in a narrative film. Formally, he exercises meticulous control over the sounds and imagery presented to the viewer. He deploys static shots and smooth, slow camera movements to reflect the Lone Man’s staid approach to his work. Christopher Doyle's masterful cinematography also underscores the repeated emphasis on the Lone Man’s extreme self-control. He lies chastely and fully clothed in bed beside an alluring nude temptress, practices the slow, disciplined motions of tai chi every morning, and repeatedly orders two espressos in separate cups, but restricts himself to consuming only one. The American explicitly states that he represents a third form of control in the film, an abstract notion of societal domination—through psychological, governmental, or economical means—against which the Lone Man can then be taken as a countercultural insurgent.
Yet the introduction of the American and the abrupt resolution of a theretofore languorously paced film ultimately reveals The Limits of Control’s biggest flaw. Before the Lone Man confronts the American, we have only formal clues to let us know that the situation is becoming direr, the soundtrack growing increasingly ominous and the mise-en-scene ever more desolate as the Lone Man moves further afield from Madrid and closer to the American’s compound. The virtual abandonment of exposition as a means of narrative progression is a noble intellectual exercise on paper, but one that holds the viewer at an awkward middle distance in practice. The narrative is sketched so vaguely that we feel nothing at what would traditionally be the film's emotional climax. At the same time, it is too developed for us to feel comfortable completely disregarding it in the end. Perhaps this is the titular “limit of control” that Jarmusch wishes to reach, then, the meticulously directed perspective here intentionally preventing us from fully engaging with narrative resolution. It is very possible, but even approaching the film as an abstract art object more than a work of narrative fiction, it is hard not to feel shortchanged by the lack of cohesiveness between threads that Jarmusch seems intent on tying together in the end.
By now, it should be fairly obvious that most American cinema-goers will probably hate The Limits of Control. It is certainly not the kind of film that one can enjoy without intellectual participation. Indeed, it has risen in my esteem as I have contemplated writing about it, puzzling out the potential meanings of Jarmusch’s various formal and narrative choices. At the end of the day, such craftsmanship and intelligence as Jarmusch exhibits here are the most we can hope for in a summer film season inundated with sequels, prequels, and Will Ferrell vehicles. I know I would much rather spend my hard-earned money on a film flawed for its overreaching ambition than for its disappointing predictability.