Last night I saw The Limits of Control, the latest from slow-core filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. The film follows a lone hit man as he waits to be led around Spain by various characters to his final destination, and target. The Lone Man, as he is simply known, hangs out for days at a time at coffee houses, museums and on trains, meeting these mysterious cohorts who lend him coded messages in matchboxes.
His journey begins in Madrid, where he waits in his room with a beautiful naked woman, sits at an outdoor cafe, and listens when people talk. Then he moves to another town. Sits in another room, no naked girl this time dammit, and sits at other cafes. He stares down a mysterious helicopter and eats the coded messages with his coffee. The Lone Man then travels to a remote village, sits in a room, and finally-FINALLY- goes to his target and accomplishes his mission. How does he infiltrate the heavily guarded compound to reach his target? “I used my imagination” is all the Lone Man offers.
In fact he says almost nothing throughout the film, except to order two espressos in two separate cups and to say that, no, he does not speak Spanish. As we follow the Lone Man, his associates often share with him, and us, little trinkets of philosophy and puzzling monologues on subjects relating to film, music, and peyote.
All through the film, people are discussing the nature of the universe (it has no center and no edges) the essence of life (it is a handful of dirt) and the reflections of reality that are more real themselves. We as the audience are left to to either ponder the mundane aspects of the non existent plot or simply allow for these philosophies to wash over us.
If you’ve ever seen a Jarmusch film, the pacing and lack of real content are of little surprise. Jarmusch very much prefers scenery and music over dialogue and plot. Even in the end we are left wondering who we have just followed and, more importantly, why.
What can I say about Jim Jarmusch? He’s known for his enigmatic films, filled with silences and mystery. His subjects have ranged from escaped convicts in Down By Law, to diner discussions in Coffee and Cigarettes. Watching a Jarmusch movie is an act of will. One must be in the mindset for patience and perseverance, as Jarmusch does very little to guide the viewer in his films. More likely, Jarmusch presents scenery and characters and allows the viewer to make up his own mind.
For me, and I’m simply speaking my subjective opinions now, Jarmusch is giving us a look into the reality of non-reality. I know. It’s confusing. I’m not even sure what the Hell I’m talking about. But I’ll try to explain. As we watch our Lone Man on screen, he sticks to such a strict and unwavering routine that we are unsure whether he’s actually working, as he claims to be, or simply floating by, every day a reflection of the last. He wears the same suits for days at a time, only changing when his location does. He practices Tai Chi and sips those same espressos. Only the cups and the rooms change. So the question is then; what is more real? The world around us? Or us ourselves? We see everything as only WE can see it. No one else experiences the world in quite the same way as I do, or you do, or Jarmusch does. It’s all subjective.
What I also got from it is a notion of the ritual of life that we create to accompany the Limits of Control that we have over our reality. The Lone Man is much like a pawn, moved across a board for no discernible reason. He knows that he cannot control this fate, only his own actions, his own behavior. It’s a fascinating exercise in exploration of reality and our confused relationship to it ( one character goes on about how we are all molecules spinning in ecstasy anyways, so chill out already will ya?), but at almost two hours long, it could be reined in a bit.
Based on a script of only twenty five pages, this could have easily been a remarkable short film, something closer to the half hour or forty minute mark. After a while the characters popping up often seem repetitive, and I think that’s the point, but in a film it’s not the best route to go. Film audiences need simple things like relatable characters and forward moving plots to really engage in a film. This does not have those things.
While I appreciated the messages I received from the film ,this is nowhere near my favorite Jarmusch movie. I think Down by Law, Broken Flowers, and Stranger Than Paradise do so much more with their characters and their takes on the fragile human condition. Bill Murray’s look in the final shot of Broken Flowers for me sums up all of the pain, regret and disappointment of a lifetime far better than our Lone Man staring at a covered painting.
I eagerly await the next Jarmusch project, but until then The Limits of Control will be holding, holding, holding it’s remarkable images and amazing music (done by Boris and easily the most satisfying part of the film) in my head for some time to come. It’s worth the watch, if you can stand it.