The walking man in “The Limits of Control,” a Minimalist exercise in the key of cool from Jim Jarmusch, wears through a lot of shoe leather during his feature-length tramp. One of cinema’s men with no names, credited only as the Lone Man, this peripatetic figure is played (and walked and walked) by Isaach De Bankolé with a determined gait and inscrutable gaze that initially reveal almost as little as the elliptical storytelling. Like Mr. Jarmusch, the Lone Man doesn’t share his intentions until he reaches the end. By that point, though, if you’ve paid attention to the cues and opening credits, you will be steps ahead of both.
Set more or less in the present, the Lone Man’s journey gets going in an airport where he receives some vaguely philosophical directives from a suave number played by the French actor Alex Descas and credited as Creole. Mr. Descas’s low-key intensity imbues the setup with a shiver of menace — despite the unhurried pace, it feels as if something heavy were at stake — an air of unease that’s counterbalanced by the dryly amusing fashion in which the Creole’s sidekick (Jean-François Stévenin) translates the orders. The Creole speaks in, yes, Creole (his words are translated in the English subtitles) and the sidekick repeats them (sometimes with slight modification) in English, which means the instructions are given three times. Repetition, it emerges, is the film’s central structuring device.
That much at least becomes quickly apparent after the Lone Man leaves the airport. Wearing a form-fitting, lightly iridescent blue suit and purple shirt, he travels to Madrid, where he settles into a 1960s high-rise apartment building with a cylindrical facade that brings to mind rolled coins. There he stays for an indeterminate amount of time. Days slip into night, though it’s unclear if they’re slipping in sequence or during different weeks and months. Whatever the case, the Lone Man establishes a routine that deviates only in its details: he sits at a cafe, drinks two espressos and, at some point (hours, minutes, days later), is joined by a man or woman with whom he exchanges almost identical matchboxes. Sometimes, he visits a museum.
A sensitive colorist, Mr. Jarmusch is given a rich palette here by Christopher Doyle — the bright Spanish light does its part — the cinematographer known for his work with Wong Kar-wai. (Mr. Doyle makes color pop and vibrate, but he also knows how to light for black skin.) Although the Lone Man doesn’t say much, the images of him suggest plenty, whether he’s looking through a red-tinted window or standing against a red wall in an elevator. These splashes of color, which appear to signal some unspoken threat or warning, serve as pieces of a puzzle that Mr. Jarmusch assembles with formal rigor and languid pacing that increasingly borders on the somnolent. Other pieces: a guitar, a flamenco song and Bill Murray.
It’s too bad that Mr. Murray’s name appears in the opening credits, since his absence from most of the film hints what will happen in the unfortunately obvious climax. By the time Mr. Murray appears, the Lone Man has racked up a lot of miles and traveled to other places where he’s exchanged matchboxes with mysterious types who ask him — just as the Creole did earlier — “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” The line is funny the first, second and almost the third time. Along the way are a quotation from Arthur Rimbaud and several nods at Jean-Luc Godard, including a shot that frames Paz de la Huerta’s apple-cheeked derriére much the same way that the French filmmaker did Brigitte Bardot’s in “Contempt.”
“The Limits of Control” is a veritable Bartlett’s: the Lone Man’s stoicism and sartorial flair evoke the solitary figures from Jean-Pierre Melville’s films. Tilda Swinton, one of the matchbox girls, name-drops Hitchcock. Mr. Jarmusch’s production company for this film is PointBlank, a reference to the 1967 John Boorman crime movie with Lee Marvin, and he has borrowed the title of “The Limits of Control” from a 1975 essay by William S. Burroughs, in which the writer analyzes a favorite topic: systems of control. Some of the lines in Mr. Jarmusch’s spare screenplay (“Everything is subjective,” “Reality is arbitrary”) also echo Mr. Burroughs, notably “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” which the writer attributed to the 11th-century Islamic leader Hassan-i Sabbah and from which the word assassin derives.
There’s more, including the reductive if sincere denouement inside a bunker with a representative of evil (no, not Hitler) that brings the Lone Man’s walkabout to an anticlimactic close. It’s a lousy letdown, at once naïve and too freighted with real-life meaning for a film that — as its thick accretion of pop-cultural and literary quotations indicates — leans so heavily on outside sources for substance and depth. Philip Glass has said that repetitive music “must be listened to as a pure sound-event, an act without any dramatic structure.” At least for its first hour, before its repetition strategy turns tedious, the same could be said of “The Limits of Control,” a nondramatic work best appreciated as a pure image-and-sound event.
“The Limits of Control” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Violence, some crude language and Ms. de la Huerta in various states of undress.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Boris; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Stacey Smith and Gretchen McGowan; released by Focus Features. In Manhattan at the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes.
WITH: Isaach De Bankolé (Lone Man), Alex Descas (Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (French), Luis Tosar (Violin), Paz de la Huerta (Nude), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Youki Kudoh (Molecules), John Hurt (Guitar), Gael García Bernal (Mexican), Hiam Abbass (Driver) and Bill Murray (American).