The Limits of Control (2009) Dir. Jim Jarmush
This movie tests a viewer’s limits of control: it tests our limits of patience and understanding, and it tests how much art for art’s sake we can stand.
The first thing that came to my mind after I left the theater was that Jarmush opened up his skull and showed us directly what was inside. In effect, the viewer is confused or bored, or both. Jarmush had a pretty good idea, but he presented it in a wrong way.
First, let’s start with the plot. We follow a story of a hired assassin, Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé), who is hired to kill somebody – a person we don’t meet until the end. What he needs to do to find his target is to meet different people who give him clues where to go next. Thus, Lone Man travels through Spain from one place to another meeting all kinds of curious individuals. Eventually, he finds the man to kill and finishes his job.
On the surface, it is a simple criminal story. It shares the same elements as other gangster movies: the assassin is a lone wolf; the job is number one priority; a beautiful girl is a fame fatal; the big boss is killed at the end. All fits into the patter in “The Limits of Control”; however, it lacks any kind of dynamic action, or even movement. We watch the story from the Lone Man’s perspective, the perspective of a person who is infinitely calm and in control of himself. His body resembles a statue – static and motionless. His face reveals no emotions. His mind is focused on the job entirely. Interestingly, the other characters seem to tune up – they walk and speak slowly and peacefully, almost lazily. Thus, we watch a gangster movie in slow motion. In effect, the movie interests (it breaks the rule of a traditional, if not stereotypical, gangster movie) and bores (the same scenes and dialogues throughout the movie).
As much as it is an assassin’s story on the job, I think it is Jarmush’s own “Léon.” There are striking similarities between Lone Man and Léon: both lone wolves, who have strict rules about the job, do not involve emotionally (at least, not up to some point), are silent, always finish what they started, and sleep with their eyes open. Another similarity is a femme fatal – for Léon it is Mathilda, and for Lone Man it is Nude. Mathilda and Nude represent a temptation and a distraction from the job. The assassins become emotionally attached to them, but they never cross the boundary of their relationship. In this regard, the girls symbolize unfulfilled love.
I also read this story differently. I believe it is a story of killing God. I believe that Lone Man’s target, Bill Murray’s character, symbolizes God. Lone Man is hired by people of art and science to kill him because they want to free art and science from limits and control. Murray’s character, the big boss, controls everything and everyone from his office, a place where no one can get in or out. Only Lone Man finds a way – he says, “I used my imagination.” It’s the only way to get to God – through our mind.
As for the people who help Lone Man, they are eccentrics interested in films, music, molecules. They represent art and science – two forces that guide Lone Man. Although each of them is more extravagant than the last one, they unite to kill God to get rid of control. One of the most curious informants is Blond (Tilda Swinton) – oddly dressed in white, she looks like a character taken straight from “Blade Runner.” The moment I saw her and the moment she started her contemplation on cinema, I thought she was the voice of Jarmush himself (the white hair, the dark glasses, the extravagant appearance).
Visually, the movie is far from a masterpiece; yet, I find many interesting elements. First, there are many geometrical figures to be seen – the round dark glasses, the dots on Molecule’s shirt, the winding stairs in the first hotel, the curves of Nude’s body, 2 perfectly round espresso cups – all juxtaposed against the dry land of the Spanish desert.
Second, Spain has been shown in an unusual way. In Jarmush’s movie, Spain is no longer a typical tourist attraction (the sunny beaches, cafes full of young people, clubs full of music and loud sounds). On the contrary, all the places Lone Man visits are deserted. There’s no hustle in the streets, no tourists in the hotel, no living soul in the desert. There’s sun, but no heat. It doesn’t overwhelm with colors, sounds and crowds. The places are as lonely as Lone Man. There is also a scene when he enters one of the places he stays in. There is a church-shaped lamp – tourists buy such lamps in souvenirs shops. The lamp is kitschy, almost ugly, but somehow very true. This element shows “real” Spain, not the glamorized one from the tourist guides. The same goes for the small Spanish village where Lone Man meets Mexican (Gael García Bernal) – a desolate but charming place. We can see it when the camera follows Mexican through the narrow streets, old houses, and white stairs – the place reveals its calmness and beauty.
The last interesting element is the matchbox. Lone Man receives secret codes to his target’s office on a piece of paper hidden inside a vintage-looking matchbox. Each character gives him a new box with a new piece of information. At the very end, Lone Man throws away the last matchbox – then we know his job is done.
“The Limits of Control” tested my patience. I passed the test because I watched it till the end. As for my understanding, I don’t know whether I understood it at all. Perhaps, this movies doesn’t make any sense and I simply read too much into it. Judge for yourselves if you dare.
Long days, pleasant nights,