Sometimes I wonder about this whole film thing that I am mired in. Like most things that consume middle-class American life, what's the point? Imagine if I channeled all of the time (and money) spent on watching movies, writing about movies, reading about movies, thinking about movies into something that clearly benefited others and the world we live in. Perhaps there is a logical debate about the benefits of cinephilia, but the evidence is clearly stacked against that notion. That it is even beneficial to me would be a hard argument to make: it certainly doesn't put food on the table or pay the heat bill, and what it does satisfy is probably some nervous tick more akin to a malignant tumor that needs to be eradicated rather than encouraged. In a round about way, The Limits of Control confirms all this, but also says, "So what?"
Unlike all the other releases playing in a theater near you, Jim Jarmusch's new film The Limits of Control will gleefully draw attention to its own pointlessness, but do so with more style and cultural references than you can shake a friggin' Romulan at. The temptation to call The Limits of Control vacuous comes easy if you are unwilling to question how it is any more vacuous than any other movie. If someone wants to assert the validity of Angels & Demons or the verisimilitude of Wolverine, I'm willing to hear them out, but I guarantee The Limits of Control will have a retort for everything.
Fortunately, Jarmusch has moved beyond questioning the values of his motives. Ever since Stranger Than Paradise, he has been working seamlessly between his intellect and his subconscious to confounding effect. The Limits of Control is brilliantly surreal within the very rational boundaries of cinematic iconography. An action film with no action; a mystery with no answer; a means with no ends.
Isaach De Bankolé is a nameless man for hire. We first meet him in a bathroom stall doing some breathing exercises like some sort of Tai Chi for small spaces. He steps out of the stall in his impeccable grey-blue silk suit and heads to the airport lobby where he meets his two contacts. Ambiguous verbal exchanges are made, vague instructions are given and a small box of matches are passed to our stolid hero. And so the game begins, as De Bankolé travels to Madrid to Seville to Almería to complete a mission that may as well be a secretive walking on the moon. Along the way, other contacts are met, other boxes of matches are traded, and ideas are expounded. Although the endgame puts the journey in perspective, it is a minor punctuation to the methodically mundane dance that is casuistically captivating.
De Bankolé, credited as the "Lone Man," does not so much play a character in the film more than he acts as a vessel: for ideas and curiosities of the world, but more importantly for cinematic ideals and the very practical application of creativity and the imagination. Although this is an overt reference to his scene with Bill Murray (the "American"), it is also a reference to his intuitive magnetism toward art. Impassive but not aloof, our Lone Man is rigorously engaged mentally in his surroundings. Although he is never called upon to do so, you suspect that he could whip out some chopsticks anytime and catch a fly with minimal movements. On a regiment of double espresso (in two cups) and no sleep and the breathing exercises, he is the embodiment of no limits to control. Watching De Bankolé with his sculptural face and his very subtle expressions was absolutely perfect as the elegant émigré angel.
The Limits of Control is a little like a cultural test (that I failed, but enjoyed) where you suspect that everything has a hidden meaning, but you have to be smart enough to figure it out. Knowing Spanish would certainly add a dimension to the film, as signs and text and even some dialogue were left untranslated. His getaway car—which was actually a truck—had the motto of 'la vida no vine nada' scrolled along the tailgate. Not to mention the reference of the Sam Fuller movie in the movie poster containing Tilda Swinton's character. For those who can identify paintings and songs and architecture, Jarmusch has given you something of a treasure hunt, much like the game being played in the movie, in which winning doesn't really matter; you are just required to participate.
Christopher Doyle's controlled but free-form cinematography added a lightness to The Limits that was different from any other Jarmusch film. Doyle's camera is not so much choreographed around the characters than it is around the architecture—constantly reacting to the structures instead of the humans.
The film also boasts a handsome cast that reads like and indie film wish list: Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Youki Kudoh, Alex Descas, Paz de la Huerta, Hiam Abbass and so on. All play momentary pieces in the whole with Tilda Swinton's being the most memorable not only because of the amazing look, but because she gets a chance to verbalize the visual magic of films. Are these images a dream? Or is it a film?
In the case of The Limits of Control, it is clearly both. A highly cerebral film that is short on emotional gravity or visceral excitement, The Limits of Control asks you to enjoy the cinematic moment along side the abstract postulations—admittedly a tough request for even the most adventurous and esoteric movie goer, myself included. I would be hard pressed to call the film successful, but there are too many perfect moments within the film for it to be unsuccessful. If you can live with the fact that films, and reviews, can be pointless and relevant at the same time, you're in the right place.