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Mission Control

Jim Jarmusch's arbitrary Limits
By PETER KEOUGH  |  May 7, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control | Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch | with Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton , Bill Murray, Gael Garciá Bernal, Paz De La Huerta, Youki Kudoh, Luis Tosar, and Hiam Abbass | Focus Features | 116 minutes
Like many of his films, Jim Jarmusch's TheLimits of Control will test the limits of its audience's patience. The repetitions, the long takes in which nothing seems to happen, the studied, deadpan irony, the borderline pretentious philosophizing — it all might make some eyes glaze over. Others might just get annoyed. Patience, though, is often rewarded, and so is attentive listening and watching. Jarmusch is trying to fulfill cinema's seldom exploited potential for numinously recording a specific reality. (Nobody has filmed desert landscapes quite the way Christopher Doyle does in this movie, not to mention his close-ups of the equally mysterious landscapes of Isaach De Bankolé's face.). More than that, he's trying to grasp this reality's inner meaning.

That latter aim is likely to put off those who've not already left after the opening quote from Rimbaud, or while De Bankolé's unnamed protagonist (called "Lone Man" in the credits) is riding in a cab from the Madrid airport to an apartment building downtown, a sequence that probably lasts as long as the actual trip itself. (At least there's no traffic.) Like many of Jarmusch's heroes, he's an everyman (that is, if everyman is an impassive, tai-chi-practicing assassin) on an obscure mission. And as in a fairy tale or a morality play, that mission consists of encounters with allegorical people, places, and things that challenge him to a kind of test and send him on a quest.

These encounters take on a ritual-like quality, as recurrent sequences begin with Lone Man visiting Madrid's Museo Nacional to ponder a particular painting. Next, a character — usually embodying some aspect of that painting and portrayed in a funny cameo performance by a John Hurt ("Guitar") or a Tilda Swinton ("Blonde") — drops by his table at an outdoor café to start a discussion (more like a monologue) that begins, "You do not speak Spanish, right? Are you interested by any chance in . . . " The interests range from music to films to molecules and involve digressions into such topics as Sufism, bohemians, Alfred Hitchcock, and the nihilism of the Old Man of the Mountain. They end with the stranger giving Lone Man a matchbox containing a slip of paper with ciphers on them and then relaying to him cryptic instructions for his next encounter.

Exceptions to this pattern include a woman called "Nude" evoked by Roberto Fernández Balbuena's painting "Desnudo" and played by Paz de la Huerta. She keeps showing up in Lone Man's room wearing only a pair of glasses or a transparent raincoat and says things like, "Do you like my raincoat?"

And, of course, there's Bill Murray.

How like life. Actually, Limits is much like many other metaphysical mystery movies, reminiscent by turns of Wim Wenders's The American Friend, the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix (minus the f/x, or much action of any kind), David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and Jarmusch's own 1995 masterpiece Dead Man, to name a few. Each of these films seeks to overcome limits and lose control by drawing its hero and the viewer deeper into an enigma, the resolution or non-resolution of which is revelatory or liberating. Jarmusch never quite reaches that point: he sets up arbitrary rules that he follows but never shakes off, and they end up controlling the movie. Yet they take it farther than most movies are willing to go.

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