A miracle of texture, Jim Jarmusch's new movie about a mystery man with a mission exists beyond cool, which is something of a relief. Beautifully crafted and serenely edited, The Limits of Control can be experienced as pure trance, without having to buy into shopworn attitudes of deadpan, or hip, or recycled zen. Gliding through Madrid, Seville, Almería, the lone man (Isaach De Bankolé) is indeed at one with himself, and practices tai chi in his hotel suites, but the force of his code comes from the film's own code of experiential patterns. Aided by his DP Christopher Doyle and a noise-rock soundtrack, Jarmusch sends us cruising on a Mobius strip of the mind — visual motifs like the curves and whorls of stairs and balconies, the spiraling guitar chords and ambient hums of Boris and Sun O))), the iterative enigmas of the man's journey (boxes of matches are exchanged at each rendezvous), and the mise en abyme of his museum visits, spent in contemplation of exactly one artwork each time.
What the hell happens? Isaach De Bankolé meets with Tilda Swinton (in fright wig and raincoat-cowgirl ensemble), Youki Kudoh, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and (under different circumstances) Bill Murray, mostly in cafes. Jarmusch's predilection for a cast of all nations fits the global-traveler musings in the one-sided dialogue at these meetings (since Bankolé's character says little or nothing, nor do we mind). None of it would be bearable without Bankolé's tense-serene presence, his cheekbones practically carved into a studiously expressionless face, his stillness and utterly contained authority arresting but not threatening or "tough" (quite unlike his last Jarmusch role as the ice cream man in Ghost Dog). Across from these equally mysterious agents delivering their lines and matchboxes, Bankolé has such immovable weight that it's possible to view these meetings as imagined obstacles, along with the bespectacled nude (Paz De La Huerta) who materializes in his hotel bed and says the darndest things.
Jarmusch has compared the movie to "Marguerite Duras remaking Le Samourai" (thereby one-upping Soderbergh's tagging lone-gunman The Limey as Resnais making Get Carter). But for most of the film what obtains is Bankolé and company's bohemian prerogative to contemplate, rather than any reworking of past films. While one profile shot of a hotel room seems to mimic the opening shot of Le Samourai, the cultural references and notebook quotations don't feel like telegraphed pastiches as they sometimes do in other Jarmusch movies, even though a few lines are ridiculous. And Jarmusch seems enlivened and grounded by the summer-bright Spain locations, from dreamy urban architecture to lunar outlands.
A couple of the movie's most striking encounters are best left unpreviewed, but suffice to say the journey gets somewhat crystallized by its destination (and climaxes in the best final shot this year). Not that the endpoint is necessary, or that there must be something to figure out and "get," pace the obnoxious review in Variety that suggests Jarmusch's true aim is getting one by all us rubes. The film's formal control and Bankolé's unnerving focus, both in the interest of liberated perception, are potent and mesmerizing, and the result is something you haven't seen before from this filmmaker.
Opens May 1
Questions and comments: email@example.com