Hypnotic, elliptically opaque, and dreamlike, The Limits of Control may test the limits of Jarmusch fans calling themselves card-carrying Jarmusch fans. If Broken Flowers was his most accessible (and financially it was), Limits might be his most willfully esoteric, or at least a nod toward the past (though really it’s the auteur doing whatever he pleases at any given moment). A moody tone poem, all one needs to do to become basically acclimated to the atmospheric tenor of the film is to recall William Blake, Johnny Depp’s character in the existentialist Western, Dead Man, which carries similarly languorous and evocatively pensive qualities (both also begin with quotes by French writers; Arthur Rimbaud in Limits and Henri Michaux in the austere Western).
Limits is a ghostly, wormhole-like enigma that has zero interest in solving itself. An existentialist thriller as much as a metaphysical noir, Jarmusch’s latest vacillates between the push and pull of a surrealist perception battle (for the protagonist, the stoic and leaf-like and still Isaach De Bankolé) and the more traditional thriller that’s here almost an afterthought, or at least contains just as many traces of equivocation. Scattered amongst the moments of “plot,” the free-form picture is mostly concerned with levitating between the psychedelic haze of conscious and subconscious states. Subjective and objective realities are constantly being alluded to in the obscure and coded dialogue, and while the film is still rooted in tangible, normal scenes, it feels at times vaguely Lynchian (odd, displaced, and humorous, especially a flamenco nightclub scene), but by and large there are no aesthetics that take it into any fantastical realms other than some lens-flared moody camerawork from the great Christopher Doyle; while it looks good, the palette is less sumptuous than say, In The Mood For Love. Instead, the spellbinding qualities and tone come from mantra-like repetition, oblique reoccurring motif clues, and the picture moves like a feverish somnolence one cannot escape (references to Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and the refracting hall of mirrors from The Lady Of Shanghai are here for good reason).
What we can glean from the narrative: De Bankole’s loner character takes on a mysterious gig; he meets up with two upscale wiseguy thugs in Charles de Gaulle airport; and he is given an abstruse mission in Spain, the messages of which are given via traded matchboxes that include little pieces of paper with equally impenetrable instructions that he comically and methodically chews up and swallows after reading. Each matchbox leads him to a different communicant (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Tosar, Youki Kudoh, and Hiam Abbass), with further clues and instructions for the vague mission (again, this is all inferred and the rules of this game are tacit throughout — “Do you speak Spanish?” and the Spanish-only trope, “la vida no vale nada” (or “life has little value”) are two recurring dialogues). Limits‘ framework is wantonly constructed in a formalistic loop, or perhaps as a pebble in the water, with each ripple reverberating out a familiar but gyring pattern until De Bankole’s coyote-spirit character meets his ultimate destination (the “American,” Bill Murray; none of the characters have names outside the credits, with John Hurt listed as “Guitar,” for example). Perhaps Radiohead’s lugubrious “I’m not here / this isn’t happening” displacement refrain (lament?) from Kid A‘s “How To Disappear Completely” would have made a fitting theme, as it’s up for debate whether any of what the characters experience is real (“Reality is arbitrary” is one slanted statement; “The universe has no center or edges” is another). Japanese and perhaps even Ozu-istic in its stark ritualism, the film meticulously sticks to mode and tone that extend to palettes, wardrobes, and songs for what seem to be the three divisions of the picture (and perhaps a nod to Boorman’s Point Blank, as De Bankole’s cryptic, shape-shifting criminal wears three different colored suits to represent all three stages).
Much like the music of the film, Jarmuch’s 10th feature acts more like a self-perpetuating echo or drone than it does a traditional story. And despite all of the fine, ambient doom metal he uses in the film to sustain the sleepwalking, half-conscious mien, it’s Jarmusch’s Bad Rabbit band and their coiled, coral-snake ominous rock that really is the most effective (shades of the acid-soaked Doors, but the best connotations only). Jarmusch’s sway with talent is certainly evinced by the quality of actors and their almost negligible screen time. Swinton, Murray, Garcia Bernal, and John Hurt all appear for no longer than five minutes and basically one small scene each, but it’s a testament to Jarmusch’s work (or his calling-in-a-favor prowess) that he can secure great names for nominal screen time (then again, Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Billy Bob Thornton, and Michael Wincott all appeared in Dead Man for equally tiny moments). The only recurrent character is the (imagined?) mostly naked, sexual temptress (Paz de la Huerta), who tries to sway the ascetic and loner protagonist from his mysterious goals (which may or may not be a riddle unto even himself).
Minimalist, despite being rich in intent, De Bankole’s cool and serene performance fits in nicely with the slow burn, flames-on-paper vibe that is the film’s somnambulist pace. The Limits of Control could be as much about the “spinning ecstasy of shifting molecules” as it could be about a hit man’s task at hand. Yes, it’s cliche to bring up the blur where reality begins and ends, but much of Limits asks the viewer to live in the in-between phase, in an almost Buddhist philosophy of welcoming fear and holding hands with loss. The isochronous milieu walks in the tradition of European filmmakers from the ’50s and ’60s (they’re called arty now, but back then they were just accepted and appreciated forms of storytelling) much more so than a linear experience, and if you can’t hang with its polysemic and wandering nature, this film probably won’t be for you. There’s probably going to be a faction of critics (and audiences) who will find The Limits of Control and its exhausting cyclical tempo to be a ponderous fart in the wind, but it’s really their loss. The picture might not be the masterpiece that is Dead Man, but it’s still another unique vision in Jarmusch’s iconoclastic oeuvre.