The Limits of Control – Lights, Camera, Inaction.
Opening next Thursday, July 23, alt-icon director Jim Jarmusch’s new film, The Limits Of Control, has been described as an “anti-action action movie.”
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, John Hurt
There are very few auteur directors that have the kind of pan-indie/rock/arthouse credibility held by Jim Jarmusch. With his improbable white hair and effortless rock sensibility, it is easy to imagine how he has convinced artists such as Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to enlist as actors in his films: coffee, cigarettes and ‘cool’.
There are many cinema fans who feel as if they’ve been waiting far too long for a new feature from Jarmusch, as up until this point, the noughties had only revealed one wholly original feature (Broken Flowers) and Coffee And Cigarettes, a composite of conversational short films going back to 1986.
Perhaps it is a testament to his bone-dry wit and love of extremely awkward pauses that watching The Limits Of Control will leave them feeling exactly the same way.
The Limits Of Control follows an inscrutable and fastidious assassin (De Bankolé) as he is commissioned for an unspecified job in Spain and told to wait further instructions. A series of cryptic encounters follows in which characters appear, offering awkward and often absurdist monologues to the assassin as a ‘cover’, while slipping him coded messages, the meaning of which are never revealed to the audience.
The premise of an assassin comfortably alone in a country where he doesn’t understand the language provides a context in which many of Jarmusch’s readily identifiable themes are played out: chance encounters, protracted pauses, dissociative characters and a cinematic style that is broad and static – the visuals are there for you to observe, discover and interpret (if you can), and the camera rarely directs your attention to specific details.
Jarmusch has said that he tends to work backwards with regard to narrative, discovering characters first, situations and conversations next and then ‘joining the dots’ to create a plot. In this sense, The Limits Of Control is a highly consistent addition to Jarmusch’s canon of work, but disappointingly, it is not one that is likely to inspire new audiences to seek out the films upon which his career has been built.
During the ’90s Jarmusch was at his iconic best, releasing his meandering and funny film conversations such as Mystery Train (three stories in a hotel – a theme that would later be borrowed by Tarantino for Four Rooms), Night On Earth (five stories in taxis across the world in one night) and the wholly ethereal Dead Man starring Johnny Depp and introducing nausea-inducing ‘wobbly-cam’ years before the Blair Witch Project.
Having said that, The Limits Of Control does offer an impressive cast, obviously keen to work with Jarmusch if and as often as they can. Tilda Swinton is, of course, naturally brilliant and abstract and John Hurt is always a pleasure to watch. Because of Jarmusch’s emphasis on character over plot – although character-driven is not the appropriate term – it is easy to see why actors would be eager to take the opportunity to take roles in his films, no matter how small the part.
Despite his minimalist approach, Jarmusch ensures that every character in his films is the star of their own story – which he feels no obligation to tell.
One interesting feature of The Limits Of Control is the use of Spanish architecture – particularly the assassin’s hotel room, all curves and features; clearly a building that was intended to be a statement of intent and individuality when it was built, but not having aged particularly well. Sadly, it’s sort of an inadvertent metaphor for this latest collection of Jarmusch’s themes and memes.
As a series of disconnected conversation/monologues, Jarmusch does offer a vague continuity in The Limits Of Control with recurring phrases (not quite gags), and the nature of these individual conversations is eventually provided a context near the film’s conclusion… although it never climaxes.
In some ways, it’s one of the longest and pointless ‘shaggy dog’ stories ever told.
Such is Jarmusch’s reputation that viewers and critics alike may find themselves in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ scenario, and phrases such as ‘post-modern’, ‘contemplative’, ‘meditative’ and ‘cerebral’ may be offered instead of taking the risk and saying ‘needlessly slow, indulgent and only vaguely amusing’.
The things that Jarmusch can do with an awkward silence should make Ricky Gervais weep with lust and envy – just watch the conversation between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop in Coffee And Cigarettes III. It is not necessarily the lack of plot that makes The Limits Of Control so infuriating, so much as the lack of humour and perhaps disappointment following the excitement of seeing Jarmusch’s latest work.
Jarmusch has pre-emptively defended himself from these criticisms by saying that he doesn’t make films to please critics – which would be fair enough if it wasn’t for the fact that he is in fact a favourite of critics around the globe. The question that remains unanswered: is he making this film for anyone but himself?
— SABIAN WILDE
First published in X-Press Magazine, July 16, 2009 (Happy Birthday to me).