May 16th, 2009

Chris Keeley


"The Limits of Control" reveals the limits of director Jim Jarmusch, whose movies tend to be hip meditations on male soloism. He has explored this territory for years, from the wandering loneliness of a Manhattan hipster in 1984's "Stranger Than Paradise" to the wandering loneliness of a past-his-prime Don Juan in 2005's "Broken Flowers." Those movies are quiet and contemplative and a bit remote, but they at least have characters who begin to feel and change and wrangle with their self-imposed isolation. "The Limits of Control" has no emotion, no compelling characters, no unity of effect and, consequently, no good reason to be seen.

It does have great actors slumming as vague philosophical notions, though. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garca Bernal pass in front of Jarmusch's camera and say weird things. A lone man in a sharkskin suit (played by French African actor Isaach De Bankol) encounters each of them while on an undefined criminal mission in Spain. He must rely on these strange people to lead him from clue to clue, location to location, till he arrives at his mark.

About halfway through the movie, the lone man meets with Swinton's character, who is costumed in a white wig, white cowboy hat, white trench coat, white boots and white-framed sunglasses.

They sit at a cafe. She orders a water. He orders two espressos.

"Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything," the Swinton character says.

And then they sit there, not saying anything.

"The Limits of Control" is not a terrible film. It's simply unsuccessful and, therefore, tedious. Jarmusch has taken the idea of a caper, drained it of plot, action and suspense, and set it against an absurdist background, where every symbol, person and incident should convey meaning but doesn't.

If anything, "The Limits of Control" unintentionally becomes an example of a broken connection between a director and his audience. Unlike the lone man played by De Bankol, the viewer will accept only so much flimflam in the course of a mission. The limit of Jarmusch's control over the viewer is the exact point where the movie starts unspooling onscreen.

-- Dan Zak (May 9, 2009)

Contains violence and brief sexual and drug references.