A slow-as-molasses crime thriller with a protagonist who makes flatline tough guy Lee Marvin in Point Blank look manic, The Limits of Control is quintessential indie Jim Jarmusch's 11th feature. The man who, along with Spike Lee and John Sayles, helped define American independent cinema for their generation, Jarmusch has turned out a consistently quirky oeuvre of films centered on hipsters traveling through a landscape littered with other nattily-dressed iconoclasts. The Limits of Control is par for the course in that regard, stocked with a who's who from the international cinema's thespian pond: Gael Garcia Bernal, Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Hiam Abbass, and indie cinema's recent go-to middle-aged goofball, Bill Murray.
But in the same way that Woody Allen or Robert Altman's glamorous casts often overshadowed their lesser efforts, the star power in The Limits of Control often begs the question of just what, considering an uneventful script, hooked all of these fish, beyond Jarmusch's unassailable reputation for cinematic cool.
The Limits of Control 's protagonist, the cryptically named Lone Man (De Bankolé) is a super chill mod in a peg-legged, shiny periwinkle suit whose already somnambulist pace slows down in morning tai chi sessions. De Bankolé has cheek bones like cut glass and when his normally impassive face breaks into even a mild smile, you feel rewarded with a tremendous gift.
We first meet the Lone Man in the airport business class lounge where he is given an oblique set of "instructions" by a pair of existential wise guys who speak in the koans of a David Lynch dream sequence. They advise him in matters related to his criminal mission, but also on philosophical affairs, like the certainty of death. The Lone Man's mission involves a plane trip to Madrid where he begins a ritual of exchanging packs of matches with the oddball strangers he encounters. Most of the match boxes contain small slips of paper, which the Lone Man reads and then devours. But occasionally, there will be a cache of diamonds. He seems to function as a kind of courier, until the film's denouement when his role becomes darker and less whimsical.
As much an episodic travelogue as anything, The Limits of Control is a film perpetually on the move. Traveling is essential in the Jarmuschian oeuvre, and the Lone Man does a heap of it, moving from hotel to hotel, town to town, his locales becoming more and more remote and dream-like as the film unfolds. For Jarmusch, it's all in the details: the run-ins with the quirky characters — Tilda Swinton in blonde cowgirl drag, the naked girl (Paz de la Huerta) in the clear plastic raincoat, the intense flamenco dancers, or the Lone Man's typical café order: two espressos served in two separate cups.
This movie is often meandering and vague, like a Michelangelo Antonioni film gone obtuse. It is disappointingly far from the shaggy grooviness and genuine wit of classic Jarmusch like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law but true-to-form to newer fare like Broken Flowers and Coffee and Cigarettes.
The Limits of Control reads as a kind of meta-crime thriller whose hit man dwells in a permanent state of anticipation: what will he do next? The whole film feels purposefully mischievous, intent on denying or stalling our desire for a payoff. The men at the center of such thrillers have often been men alone and adrift in a dangerous, deceptive universe with only their wits to help them. Jarmusch's fussy exercise suggests a director peeling back the skin of existentialist gangster thrillers to their bare essence and studying them under a microscope.
Some will find his excavation intriguing. The rest of us may long for the enticements of meaningful dialogue, character, and story, and a compelling film hero to make it all feel worthwhile. And with the cinema hurting for interesting stories and original voices, it would have been nice if Jarmusch had offered more than a carefully-constructed formalist exercise this time around.