The Limits of Control
Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch
A naked woman lies sprawled atop the wrinkled linens, playing with a loaded pistol. It gleams. In walks a tall, dark, fearsome type in a shimmering, matter-of-fact suit that could stop a philistine dead in the street. All the elements of a well-oiled spy thriller are present: star-studded cast, mysterious passwords, foreign city, aura of violence. Yet this is an assassin film unlike any you’ve ever seen. If you base your expectations on its rapidly cut teaser, you can prepare to fidget through each grueling hour of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. The film does not deliver on its genre’s promises; however, what it does provide is a game-changing meditation—a subtle détournement that appropriates assassin-thriller pulp regalia for its own deeply philosophical aims. At its core, it is an anti-capitalist modernist piece of art, a form of social violence.
Despite the film’s anti-capitalist sentiments, Jarmusch spares no dime in casting. The Limits of Control is a revolving door of hefty, top-of-the-line talent, from the debonair Isaach de Bankole, to the vivacious Nude, Paz de la Huerta, the serene and sterile Tilda Swinton, a gypsy-like Gael Garcia Bernal, and the ethics-bare capitalist, Bill Murray (complete with American flag-pin). The magic of the film is in the way that Jarmusch handles his actors. Each road-weary, seasoned veteran of the spy network holds some abstract nugget of theoretical insight. They never exchange names. They are not friends but seem more like estranged pupils. Bankole himself—the lead—has no name. He is credited as “Lone Man.” Jarmusch spares us the brainless, borderline sexist intrigue of “Pussy Galore” and “Xena Onatopp” nomenclature. True, he uses names that are merely descriptors, but every character’s name is stripped to the essentials: Blonde, Nude, the American, Violin, and the Mexican. And the only way to know these names is to stick around to read the credits at the end of the film. Limits of Control is about patience. Come prepared to wait, to be still.
The film follows this Lone Man through a series of often bizarre private meetings. Each meeting begins with the “password,” a banal “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” Secret-agent films have always been fraught with code words and secret phrases, and Jarmusch pokes fun by using a phrase so common in metropolitan Spain that it is utterly useless as a signifier of individuality. By once more turning to a tired trope of the genre, he makes a concerted effort to disarm the genre as “genre,” instead harvesting from the stereotypical category a bona fide dialectic. The name of the Lone Man’s game is restraint. He refuses the fancy cars, women, and gratuitous violence in favor of his walking shoes and a chance to meditate.
The film is largely set in the sprawling metropolises of Spain, but the Lone Man spends his free time in the art museum—admiring a single portrait on each visit. There is no glamour to the city—no hyperbolized exoticness. Only buildings, a few people, road, silence. By having his characters talk explicitly about sex, violence, and riches instead of participating in them, Jarmusch makes a polemic against the vices of Western pop-culture.
Not a single bullet flies in the film. Instead, Jarmusch has the Lone Man unload his only gun, which he takes from the Nude temptress. She—perhaps the most potent allegory of the film—represents pop-culture. She’s beautiful, alluring, and dangerous. The Lone Man refuses to sleep with her, though she is constantly naked and asks him to. She wonders aloud how he survives without guns or sex. She craves jewels. She is the quintessential desire of the modern Western man. By placing distinct boundaries—choosing a trip to the museum over intercourse, forcing himself to wait for the next sign, being utterly silent, and traveling by foot like an old Greek—the Lone Man is the vision of the ideal modernist intellectual, reminiscent, perhaps, of Frederich’s Man Above Sea Fog. He refuses the fleeting temptations of pop-culture post-modernity and sets his will against the powers that impose it.
The message is simple: where there are no limits, there is no control. Hollywood behemoths know this and therefore place limits on what they reveal. (Take, for instance, the unattainable jewelry or love, for that matter, one sees on the silver screen or the cut that always happens just before a woman’s robe falls to the ground.) By placing limits, the directors and producers control behavior. They amuse and tempt. People flock in droves to the theater just to be titillated with the promise of happiness. The Lone Man spends a sixth of the film meditating, i.e. exercising intensive self-control and practicing a rigorous form of autonomy. His argument is with the American capitalist, the peddler of flashy goods and unattainable ideals. Although Bill Murry’s corporate-thug gag seems a little too obvious for Jarmusch, it works. When Murray asks how the Lone Man managed to get through the waves of guards and defenses at his secret outpost, the Lone Man merely replies, “I used my imagination.” This would seem tacky if it hadn’t been for our fear and respect for Bankole’s character.
With the wave of blockbusters every weekend this summer, The Limits of Control is a delightful challenge and a welcome respite from the Hollywood drudge that overwhelms the box office. Each character is worth her conversation. Jarmusch has made a violently oppositional alternative to the common spy-thriller.
Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.