The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 01/07/09

How much sense does a film have to make?  Certainly, there is some fine line between pretension and art, perhaps lying entirely in the eye of the beholder.  And how does one know when a film is being remote and profound or sort of intentionally ambiguous and only pretending to make a statement?

When Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, The Limits of Control, came out last year, it was not met with positive reviews.  So, I am guessing that the slow pace and the bare bones of a narrative, played out against repeating statements about the meaning of life, queries of taste, allusions to art, and a cast of multinational actors didn’t manage to mesh for many people into anything either sensible or tolerable.  And going in, I considered this film to be a potential disappointment.

I’ve always liked Jarmusch, since his early times, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), and Mystery Train (1989) and his film Dead Man (1995) is a personal favorite.  But what about this film?

Shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle (probably the best in the business since his work with Wong Kar-Wai and beyond), the film follows African actor Isaach De Bankolé, a nattily-clad, Tai Chi-practicing courrier, as he lands in Madrid and is given a series of cryptic tasks, all signified by the hand-off of matchboxes, containing coded messages that he reads and then swallows with his two caffe espressos.  He is met by a broad spectrum of actors including John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, and Youki Kudoh who after asking him whether he speaks Spanish or not (he does not), pontificate on a variety of arts, ideas, and philosophies.  His journeys take him from Madrid to Sevilla to Almeria, a progression away from modernity and the urban to an older, smaller village, rural world.  And in the end, there’s Bill Murray and a further cryptic ending.

But you know?  I liked it.  Through the beginning, I was intrigued by the European-ness of the film, something perhaps like a film from The Continent from the 1980’s, something sort of post-New Wave or something.  And Doyle’s cinematography, using the unusual architechtural locations to frame shots within highly Modernist design, through the straighter, more traditional lines, and on, set the tone and the pace of this slow, quiet film.

And seeing Paz de la Huerta, nude, ambiguous, and nude…did I say nude?

Well, it’s not like it all made sense to me per se, but I liked it.  The passing landscapes out the windows of the train, from windmill farms to orchards to hills and sun, it’s almost as though the whole is something more than the parts.  And while there is certainly pretentions and intentional mystery that I don’t know if it all worked, I found myself in the odd minority of really liking the film.   And it’s not that I think that I’m right and all the others are wrong, but rather quite simply…I liked it.

I often note that time is the true judge, not just of film and art, but history, everything.  And I won’t project whether this film or even Jarmusch himself will stand the tests of time in that sense.  But I liked it.  And that is that.

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