Ever since his breakthrough hit "Stranger than Paradise" (1984), a film composed entirely of long, laconic master shots, Jarmusch has been described as a minimalist, and with good reason. With the low-key humanist sketch comedies of "Mystery Train" (1989), "Night on Earth" (1991), his minimalism became associated with droll deadpan. He was the man who made lyrical, sardonic, stylish and gentle films about outsiders and dreamers.
But along the way he also made his masterpiece "Dead Man" (1996), a modern-day acid Western and the greatest American film of the 90s. "Dead Man" arrived cloaked in the minimalist trappings and wry humor of his earlier works which probably explains why many critics (with Jonathan Rosenbaum one notable exception) missed the fact that it was an angry, bleak film, a scathing indictment of American amnesia about its genocidal past. Here Jarmusch's trademark lassitude is periodically disrupted by abrupt explosions of violence, a major shock to for viewers who thought they had him pegged as the master of mellow. "Dead Man" is still a minimalist film about outsiders and has its share of quirky comic touches, but it is also an apocalyptic nightmare.
Jarmusch's next feature film "Ghost Dog" (1997) was similarly violent but felt like a minor, though highly entertaining, nostalgic riff. The director returned to his roots with the release of the multi-year project "Coffee and Cigarettes" (2003) and appeared, horror of horrors, to move in a more commercial direction with "Broken Flowers" (2005), by far his most successful box office performer.
Anyone fearing the director would continue to move to the mainstream can rest easy. With "The Limits of Control" Jarmusch has thrown both fans and detractors his sharpest curve ball yet. With "Limits," Jarmusch unhitches his wagon from petty concerns such as narrative and character altogether.
Jarmusch's films have always been fairly straightforward in terms of clarity, but here he takes an oblique approach to his severely stripped-down narrative. The film uses John Boorman's "Point Blank" as its launching point (the production company is called PointBlank Films) but pares down that already sleek thriller to its barest essentials.
Our unnamed protagonist, identified in the credits as The Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) is an agent of some kind, probably an assassin. He arrives in Spain and meets with a series of contacts who are also identified (in the credits) by a single attribute: The Creole, Violin, The Driver. They exchange matchbooks which contain either payments such as diamonds or tiny notes with scribbled codes that The Lone Man quickly reads and then eats. He rarely speaks and when he does he often limits himself to "Yes" or "No." He spends a lot of time sitting at outdoor cafes, walking through alleys or hallways, and lying in hotel beds even though he doesn't appear to sleep.
That's not the only thing he doesn't do in bed. A mysterious woman (Paz de la Huerta) appears in his room one day. She is The Nude and she lives up to her name, spending all of her screen time partially or completely naked. She is a distillation of the femme fatale, but her considerable wiles are lost on The Lone Man. She will not seduce him and lead him to his doom because he does not have sex while he's working. Instead they lie in bed together, he clothed, she naked. As far we see can tell, nothing happens.
The same can be said for the rest of the film. Aside from semi-interludes with The Nude, nothing in particular happens until the end when something in particular happens. It is something particularly odd and I won't reveal it save to say that it involves Bill Murray in a Dick Cheney-esque secret bunker and, despite that set up, it's not funny at all. After a single viewing, I find it perplexing but I'm certain that it shares quite a bit with the accusatory spirit of "Dead Man." It is one of the first times (the second time, actually) in which The Lone Man expresses any kind of emotion, and minimalist though it may be, it is an eruption of anger and outrage that argues rather obstinately for the power of the imagination and a rebellion against all authority. A title card after the end credits helps quite a bit: "No limits, no control."
Critics who wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares about hipsters lurking under the bed will accuse the film of being too cool for school, substituting empty chic for substance. This is nonsense, but it is superficially understandable nonsense. Most characters are defined only by behavioral quirks or colorful costumes (Tilda Swinton shows up in trenchcoat and blonde wig as the aptly named Blonde). They spout cryptic aphorisms like "The universe has no center and no edges" and "The reflection is more real than the thing being reflected." The film is built on a series of mechanical repetitions. Everyone who meets The Lone Man asks "You don't understand Spanish, do you?" He is repeatedly asked if he is interested in things such as art, music or movies and he refuses to answer the questions each time.
Isaach de Bankolé is practically a living freeze frame, his stony face implacable and impenetrable. His blank expression dares viewers to interpret it at their own peril. In some scenes, he stares at a painting in a museum as music swells on the soundtrack. We might be tempted to think he's having an emotional reaction to a work of art, but there's no evidence to support this. What we see is simply an impassive stare that is repeated over and over again until it becomes the defining image of the movie.
With all due respect to the film's naysayers, the iconic clothing, the goofy pseudo-philosophical dialogue and the icy glares don't add up to a film that strives to be tragically hip or interminably cool. Rather, the film offer a series of inscrutable codes, like those on the tiny slips of papers that The Lone Man gulps down, that are not meant to be broken. This is a world that, in the spirit of the French nouveau roman (new novel), focuses on surfaces and objects. There are numerous inserts of keys, coffee cups, the ubiquitous matchbooks and the most important surface-object of them all, The Lone Man's face. They are important in their own right, just as important if not more so than story or character not because of any hidden messages one might tease out of them but simply because they are filmed.
"Limits" is a game of sorts, challenging the viewer to seek meaning where there may not be any. Are we supposed to make anything of the fact that every one of The Lone Man's contacts wears glasses but he doesn't? I don't know, and I don't care. Once "Limits" is out on DVD viewers will have the chance to freeze frame the slips of paper The Lone Man gulps down. Perhaps they will crack the code, but I don't see how that would be any fun.
The fun here is in the experience of simply watching and listening, each of equal importance. "The Limits of Control" has one of the most evocative ambient soundtracks I have ever heard. In almost every scene, we are made privy to the bustle of the surrounding neighborhood. Even when The Lone Man lies in bed staring at the ceiling, we hear cars and voices from outside. Even in a simple shot where The Lone Man watches The Mexican (Gael Garcia Bernal) walk to his truck, the soundtrack is filled with barking dogs and chirping birds. The only silent moments are when The Lone Man does his meditation exercises.
Jarmusch's films have always been about music as much as image, character or plot, and "Limits" is no exception. Neil Young's pounding, repetitive score for "Dead Man," described scornfully but amusingly by Roger Ebert as the sound of "a man repeatedly dropping his guitar," is one of the movie's most important structural elements and also happens to be my favorite soundtrack of all-time. The score for "Limits" is provided by the experimental trio Boris and its layered electronic feedback will probably not please listeners who didn't care for the Neil Young. I thought it was fantastic but I lack the musical terminology to describe it well so I won't try.
As for the images, they are the product of Jarmusch's collaboration with the renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The movie pulsates with vivid reds and metallic grays and is replete with beautifully composed images of all kinds: blurry lights, darkened streets, landscapes, city skylines, paintings. And faces. Jarmusch's films have studied many memorable faces from Richard Edson in "Stranger Than Paradise" to Gary Farmer in "Dead Man," and de Bankolé's face is every bit as remarkable as any of them. To say that he holds the screen in his close-ups would be a gross understatement. De Bankolé's tight-lipped glower is a lid on a boiling pot. It's hard to believe this is the same actor who played affable, smiling, Chatty Cathy characters in three previous Jarmusch films.
"Limits" even challenges viewers to identify the intended tone in individual scenes or in the film as a whole. A scene that plays as comedy to one viewer might seem menacing to another. That trademarked Jarmuschian wry humor is certainly at play here, but for me it's the righteous rage that ultimately defines the film as manifest in that perplexing climax that I promised not to talk about.
With little in the way of narrative, character or even a definitive tone, what are we left with? Image and sound. Also known as cinema. If that and just the bare bones of a story aren't enough for you, then this is probably not your movie. But if you're willing to silence your inner interpreter and simply look and listen, you may be in for a special experience.
"The Limits of Control" is Jarmusch's boldest work since "Dead Man" and though it is probably not the equivalent of that great film it is still an impressive achievement, simultaneously alienating and mesmerizing. I've already watched it twice in three days and I'll be going back again soon.