This is it, friends and readers–the end of this current series of Directed Viewing. If this is your first time wandering in, Directed Viewing is a continuing series where I take a look at the filmography of a given director, usually in chronological order (varying due to availability) and try to parse something meaningful by having watched all their movies in order. In this particular series (season? chapter? volume? I really need some terminology) we’ve been delving into the deep dark places of hipster arthouse cinema with the films of Jim Jarmusch.
I really knew very little about today’s movie, outside of a warning someone had posted in the comment of one of my first articles in this project warning me that it would probably beat me through sheer obtuseness. And while I know why they warned me, I have to say we ended on perhaps the perfect film to end this conflicted, frustratingly vague, sometimes brilliant series of movies on. So let’s talk about
The Limits of Control (2009)
I feel like incredibly short summaries of the entire plot of movies has become a bit of a recurring theme of late, but it seems the trend lately has been movies without strong narrative focus. Blame Jarmusch, not me. I certainly had tons to say about the plot of Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers. And I’ll admit that I tend to be a bit reductionist in order to get some groundwork laid for people who are reading this without seeing the movie. But all those qualifiers aside, the entire two hours of The Limits of Control can be summed up in a single line:
An unnamed assassin gets a contract, meets a series of people who point him towards his target, and then kills said target. The End.
That sounds pretty straightforward, but what The Limits of Control is goes beyond its storytelling. Yes, it has a fairly concrete narrative, but the color and texture around it is where Jarmusch’s head is at (where, arguably, it is always at in every one of his films) and that’s where we find the … well, meaning is a strong word.
Let’s be clear, I feel like there’s a lot of directorial intent to the movie, but I’m willing to admit that perhaps the whole kernel of truth of the movie escaped me because I’m fairly certain I missed a meaning. Or there wasn’t one. That wouldn’t surprise me much, given Jarmusch’s frequent returns to films about nothing more than tone and characters existing on the screen. But hey, even people who watch a bunch of movies eventually come across one that defeats them, so I’ll admit the potential for my ignorance.
I certainly wouldn’t be alone. So baffled was I after watching The Limits of Control that I took the rare action of checking various reviews for the movie. Many of the writers I tend to look to today for word of mouth on movies seemed torn between loving it and being mildly disgusted by it, often for seemingly the same reasons. Even Emperor Reviewer himself Roger Ebert seemed to have some sort of psychotic break and ended up writing a piece of first person fiction from the perspective of the actor playing the unnamed assassin. (No, really. I’m not kidding.)
So I’m left trying to make something coherent out of a movie that seems to take eschewing a traditional narrative as its sole reason for being. And that’s not to say that The Limits of Control is wildly experimental or anything, because it’s not. In fact, if it was, it’d be easy to wrap one’s head around. Instead we’re left holding pieces that look as though they belong in a normal movie, but put together they just make you feel like you had a stroke.
Let’s start with our unnamed assassin played by Isaach De Bankolé. He has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire movie but fills almost every shot with his blank, expressionless face. We know almost nothing about him despite watching him for two hours. He does tai chi. He sits and listens to classical music. He stares into paintings in museums like they are more real than the world around him. He doesn’t sleep with women while on the job, even we they throw themselves at him. Inscrutable doesn’t even begin to apply to this guy. He is the only thing more of a cipher than the movie itself.
The world he drifts in seems relatively normal, an incredibly shot look at Spain in all of its beauty, from modern cities to quaint villages to the wilds of the middle of nowhere. But the people filling it all seem as cut adrift as our nameless protagonist, bumping into him every time he puts out his call sign of two espressos in separate cups. They exchange information or money or who knows what inside of matchboxes. We rarely get to see what’s inside, but it’s hardly important anyway. These are just steps on a journey, and at each step people offer their own exhaustive confessionals about art or life whatever seems to be on their mind. But this all happens in a very circumspect way, where people bring things up in conversation that our hero was looking at earlier in the movie, or lines from conversations will pop up later as graffiti on the walls repeated in a wildly different context by another character.
The people themselves are as diverse and strange as anything else in the movie. There’s John Hurt playing a typically John Hurt character, old and amusing and charming in a befuddled sort of way as he talks about the origins of the word bohemian. Paz de la Huerta plays a woman who seems to be loathe to leave our hero, throwing herself at him time and again with strange notions of some illicit, unconsummated romance. It doesn’t help (hurt?) that she spends almost all of her on-screen time naked, for reasons that I can’t even begin to fathom. Titillation? Hardly something Jarmusch has ever indulged in in the past, so that wouldn’t seem to be likely. Because she’s the exotic love interest in what is ostensibly a European spy film? Maybe. At the very least, it helps contribute to the weird dream-like state the movie seems firmly entrenched in, a piece of visual absurdity to what is otherwise a very austere film and setting.
It’s about the time Tilda Swinton shows up in a white rain coat talking about Hitchcock films and how much she enjoys movies where people sit and do nothing and talk about less that I realized how much of Coffee and Cigarettes has been folded into the plot of this movie. And anyone who has been following along knows how I feel about that movie. But here it seems to service the jarring, disconnected nature of the movie. And with a main character anchoring it and the obtuse nature of the conversations the movie I found myself most thinking of wasn’t Coffee and Cigarettes but Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. How you feel about that comparison is, like The Limits of Control, probably a near-arbitrary matter of mood and taste. Neither film really holds to easily-grasped concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
This whole article has been a lot of qualifiers seemingly unsure about whether I like The Limits of Control or not. And when pinned down to outright answering you I have to say … yeah, I think I do. I couldn’t really tell you why, because it is seemingly made up of the worst qualities of the Jarmusch movies I dislike–it’s too long, it’s too empty, and it seems to delight in its nothingness for its own sake. But there’s a maturity to the construction, a devotion to the purpose, that’s clear from the opening shot to the bizarrely anticlimactic ending. It’s hard to ignore clear intent and quality filmmaking, even if what it’s directed towards is still more baffling than anything.
Which is kind of how I feel about the whole project, to bring this around to some sort of ultimate conclusion. There’s no real final piece about what he’s all about, because I feel like I’ve belabored those points. Exhaustively, begrudgingly so, at points. But I will say Jim Jarmusch has vision, if nothing else. And for as many of his movies that I disliked, the ones I like I really like. They feel special, unique films that could only have come from this oft-infuriating artist. And as baffling as the me of a month ago would feel reading this, I appreciated the slog. I feel like I’ve learned a whole lot about movies without narrative, what works and what doesn’t, and how to approach very thin material in a way that opens it up to a lot of analysis and discussion.
I just don’t want to do it again anytime soon.