By DENNIS LIM
THIRTY years ago, when he was a student at New York University, Jim Jarmusch used some scholarship money meant for tuition to make a movie called “Permanent Vacation.” Like many first films, it is a little awkward and more than a little precious. But viewed today this imperfect debut also sums up the themes of his career: it gets across the sense of being a stranger at home and the empathy for life on the margins, and it even offers a kind of manifesto about the art of storytelling. “What’s a story anyway?” its protagonist muses, “except one of those connect-the-dots drawings that in the end forms a picture of something?”
The largely plotless movie ends with an image that now seems neatly symbolic: its hepcat hero is on a boat pulling out of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline receding into the distance. Since then Mr. Jarmusch has found his place as a poet of travel and a global ambassador for downtown cool. His protagonists are typically solitary adventurers, and his stories are usually mere clotheslines on which chance encounters and running gags are hung. His career, while not exactly a permanent vacation, has been consecrated to the romance of wanderlust and the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange.
A true independent who insists on final cut and who even owns all his negatives, Mr. Jarmusch has long been a world-cinema brand name, especially popular in Europe and Japan. Except for parts of the taxicab anthology “Night on Earth” (1991), however, his films have been set in the United States, which he has a particular knack for depicting through the eyes of outsiders. But with his 10th feature, “The Limits of Control,” which follows an impassive man of mystery (Isaach De Bankolé) on a lethal mission through Spain, Mr. Jarmusch, no less than his protagonist, is the stranger in paradise.
“Being in a place where you don’t understand certain things is really inspiring for your imagination,” Mr. Jarmusch said in a recent interview in the Manhattan office of Focus Features, the distributor of “The Limits of Control,” which opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
“Maybe it’s because I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and never thought I would get out,” Mr. Jarmusch said, reflecting on the importance of travel in his films. It could also be, he added, because his first trip abroad, as a college student in Paris, reading André Breton and watching movies at the Cinémathèque Française, had such a mind-expanding effect.
Mr. Jarmusch has made a specialty of the deadpan odyssey, starting with his breakthrough film, “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984). “The oldest narrative in the world is the journey,” he said. “I don’t really believe in originality. Art and human expression are about variations. There’s an ocean of possible ways, but they don’t ever come in the same configuration.”
The road movie is certainly not the only genre Mr. Jarmusch has tailored to suit his needs. “Dead Man” (1995) is a western with both cosmic and political dimensions. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) cross-pollinates the rituals of the samurai film with those of the Mafia movie.
“The Limits of Control” harks back to the existential crime films that enjoyed a golden age in the late ’60s with Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Samourai” and John Boorman’s “Point Blank.” Mr. Jarmusch summed up his intentions with typical dry perversity: “I always wanted to make an action film with no action, or a film with suspense but no drama.”
In keeping with his fondness for repetition and episodic structures, “The Limits of Control” takes shape as a series of interactions and transactions. The lone man runs into a series of colorful types (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray and others, making the most of minimal screen time), most of them envoys of a sort, who dispense gnomic instructions and presumably less pertinent ruminations. Matchboxes branded “Le Boxeur” are exchanged. Some contain a piece of paper bearing coded inscriptions, which the De Bankolé character dutifully folds up and swallows, washing down the clue with a gulp of espresso.
Mr. Jarmusch’s previous film, the melancholic “Broken Flowers” (2005), in which Mr. Murray played a graying lothario who goes in search of his former flames, seemed like the product of a mellowed middle age. But “The Limits of Control” affirms that at 56 he remains open as ever to experimentation, perhaps even to new ways of making and seeing movies.
There are obvious affinities between “The Limits of Control” and Mr. Jarmusch’s most adventurous film, “Dead Man,” which received mixed reviews when it was released but found its way onto many critics’ lists of the best movies of the ’90s. Each film undertakes a journey that is as much metaphysical as literal: a trip in more than one sense. By opening with a quotation from the Rimbaud poem “The Drunken Boat,” with its hallucinatory visions of being lost at sea, “The Limits of Control” even picks up where “Dead Man” left off, with Johnny Depp’s character being pushed out to sea and into the spirit world.
The title comes from an essay by William S. Burroughs about mind-control techniques. “I like the double sense,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “Is it the limits to our own self-control? Or is it the limits to which they can control us, ‘they’ being whoever tries to inject some kind of reality over us?”
But the title also registers as an acknowledgment that control, while unavoidable in the messy collective endeavor of moviemaking, runs counter to Mr. Jarmusch’s free-form approach. He starts with specific actors, gathers up seemingly unrelated ideas and settles on situations and moods before filling in what passes for a plot. “I work backwards,” he said. “That can be dangerous, and it can take a while.” For “The Limits of Control” he had even fewer starting points than usual: an actor, a character and a place, the curving Torres Blancas, a Madrid apartment tower that he first visited in the ’80s.
Location scouting was critical, since the movie, as Mr. Jarmusch saw it, was very much a matter of finding evocative spaces and landscapes and responding to them. The film came together as a connect-the-dots exercise. He sketched out the character’s itinerary, beginning in the cosmopolitan capital, Madrid, then heading south to the Moorish city of Seville on a high-speed train that traverses the olive groves and almond orchards of the Andalusian countryside. The eventual destination is the southeast, the lunar desert terrain near the coastal town of Alméria (where many spaghetti westerns were shot).
Mr. Jarmusch started filming without a complete script; instead he had what he called “a minimal map,” a 25-page story. The dialogue was filled in the night before a scene was shot. “With Jim it’s always about what’s between the lines,” said Mr. De Bankolé, who has appeared in three of Mr. Jarmusch’s previous films.
The odd little totems and fetishes embedded throughout the movie may seem arbitrary, but mention any one of them and Mr. Jarmusch will riff at length about its personal significance. He had received the Boxeur matches, which are common throughout Africa, as gifts, first from the musicologist Louis Sarno, then from Mr. De Bankolé, who was born in Ivory Coast. The black pickup truck that transports Mr. De Bankolé’s character to his ultimate destination, down to the slogan emblazoned on it (“La Vida No Vale Nada,” the title of a song by the Cuban singer and revolutionary Pablo Milanés), is modeled on one owned by Joe Strummer of the Clash, who appeared in “Mystery Train” and, before his death in 2002, lived part time in the south of Spain.
The clearest sign of Mr. Jarmusch’s commitment to a looser way of working was his decision to team up with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his seat-of-the-pants collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. “I wanted Chris’s wild side to find things I might not find,” Mr. Jarmusch said.
Music was the most important key to the rhythms and textures of the film. Mr. Jarmusch’s soundtracks are the height of hipster connoisseurship: Neil Young’s feedback-choked guitar vamps on “Dead Man,” RZA’s sinuous hip-hop on “Ghost Dog,” Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz-funk on “Broken Flowers.” For “The Limits of Control,” which called for a soundscape that he described as “layered, big, sort of damaged,” he relies on distortion-heavy epics by ambient-noise bands like Boris and Sunn O))).
Mr. Doyle, who has worked extensively in Asia, said there are ways in which Mr. Jarmusch’s methods are more East than West. “There are certain aspects of Asian filmmaking where you’re always looking for the essential in the picture,” he said. “We’re not sure what the film is until we find it.”
Like Forest Whitaker’s urban samurai in “Ghost Dog,” Mr. De Bankolé’s character is an apparent adherent of Eastern philosophy. The lone man practices tai chi and has a deliberate, Zenlike air to him. (At museums he takes in only one painting per visit.) Mr. De Bankolé said he got into character by reading the Japanese martial-arts manual “The Art of Peace.”
“It would slow me down,” he said. “He should be almost floating when he walks.”
Mr. Jarmusch is not a practicing Buddhist, but he said, “it’s a philosophy that speaks to me more clearly than others.” He does tai chi and qigong and has come up with a concentration exercise — “a cross between meditating and taking a hallucinogenic drug” — that requires him to pay close attention to all noises within earshot. (In a lovely sequence Mr. De Bankolé’s character lies on his bed in a Seville apartment as the light changes and the sounds of the neighborhood wash over him.)
To the extent that “The Limits of Control” is a puzzle, Mr. Jarmusch said he drew inspiration from Jacques Rivette’s films, where the pleasure often lies in disorientation in the accumulation of cryptic clues and resonances rather than in solutions. Accordingly, he was more eager to hear interpretations of the film than to offer his own.
“It’s not my job to know what it means,” he said, adding that the Juan Gris painting seen at one point could be taken as a hint to the movie’s Cubist nature. “It’s interpretable in different ways, and they’re all valid.”
The other day his friend the actress Ingrid Caven told him she had assumed the little pieces of paper that Mr. De Bankolé’s character swallows are tabs of blotter acid. “She said each time he eats one of those, he gets perky,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ll take it.”