Why I Love… #118: The Limits of Control

Year: 2009

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Stars: Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas, Paz de la Huerta

Earlier this year during our (first) lockdown – and suddenly unemployed – I used my free time, somewhat unsurprisingly, to catch up on some movies from my ever-growing watchlist. Part of this included checking off the Jim Jarmusch titles that I hadn’t yet seen, chiefly the earlier films where I found some particular delights (Night on Earth especially). Having pried into these earlier films, I was moved to revisit some of those already seen, including his respected but not overly loved 2009 feature The Limits of Control.

This coincided with a 10 day watch of Nicolas Winding Refn’s polarising Amazon Prime TV series Too Old To Die Young; an exceedingly slow-paced tale of police corruption and cartel violence that I was at first repulsed by, but eventually came to adore. For all it’s indulgences and flaws, it may be my favourite of Refn’s works to date (physical release, please!).

Visiting Jarmusch’s anti-action movie fit well with the deliberate pacing I was being treated to by Refn. Jarmusch is known for his laconic storytelling, and the two pieces seemed to be complimenting one another. Where Refn was a European re-configuring the wild legacy of the American/Mexican border and its accompanying neo-noir tales, Jarmusch was an American abroad, making a rare film outside of the states; a kind of Euro travelogue that takes the hitman movie and disassembles it, like an assassin taking apart a pistol for the purpose of a methodical clean. Jarmusch puts it back together with new parts; the things that interest him (coffee, music, the movies themselves).

Isaach de Bankolé (a frequent flier with Jarmusch, and also Claire Denis) plays an exquisitely well-dressed, fit and mysterious stranger, The Lone Man, travelling by himself through Europe. In episodic fashion he meets with a succession of oddball and eccentric characters, each pointing him the next step of the way along a path; an unspoken job that we can only assume (correctly, it transpires) to be a professional hit. One recurring, fanciful flourish of the film sees cryptic ciphers passed back and forth inside colourful matchboxes between The Lone Man and his various contacts, each of whom is embodied by some noteworthy character actor or other, from Tilda Swinton to Paz de la Huerta, from John Hurt to Gael García Bernal. During the first meeting, the one that sets this story in motion, The Creole (Alex Descas; another regular for Jarmusch and Denis alike) tells our man, “The universe has no centre and no edge. Reality is arbitrary.” Thus begins a kind of aloof odyssey. A daydream of departures, one that openly invites personal interpretations dependent on the viewer. All set to the hazy psychedelic fuzz of Japanese metal band Boris. The result may not be many people’s favourite Jarmusch cut, but it is mine.

The Limits of Control is as much about travelling as it is anything else; perhaps a rather masochistic thing to enjoy while large parts of the world remain quarantined with flights grounded due to the ongoing pandemic. I’d like to take a better view. Jarmusch’s film is useful during these times because it allows us to rekindle and re-experience the feeling of long journeys without the need to undertake one. It is a film of mezzanine places. Cafés, restrooms, hotels, train cars, airports. It is about the spaces between destinations. The long hours left to ruminate, the undulation of previously unseen landscapes rolling by. We are invited to imprint much of it with our own experience and recollection.

de Bankolé is a mesmerising lead here, joining the ranks of cinema’s great ‘strong, silent’ types. Jarmusch understands the charismatic qualities inherent in the man’s frankly beautiful face. He rests a lot of the film on the innate watchability of his subject, who remains stoic and relatively passive through the entire piece. We are invited to admire his gait as he walks, or the control he has of his body when routinely performing Thai Chi. Here, perhaps, we find the most clear manifestation of the film’s cryptic title. The Lone Man is a person of incredibly deliberate poise. Though his journey is ambling and indirect, it also feels as though each step is in some way necessary, even if we are not given the expected exposition to understand it. There is little in the way of character – aside from his preference for ordering “two espressos in separate cups” and an evident appreciation of art – but that blank-slate adds not only to his mystique but his imprintability. Again, it feels as though Jarmusch is inviting us to cast ourselves in the film. To make this experience our own.

Toward the end, The Lone Man takes another of his frequent trips to an art gallery. Here, he sits before a blank sheet, loosely pinned to a canvas). He stares at it with the same inscrutable expression we have by this time grown accustom to. But one is moved to ponder, does he see himself in the work before him? The sheet makes us think of the Turin Shroud, in which the face of Jesus was supposedly imprinted. Is The Lone Man waiting for his own visage to appear in the shroud upon the wall? Do we all, in some way, see ourselves as a kind of deity on Earth because of the singleness of our own experience? There are no answers here, of course. Jarmusch is a riddler, prodding us, suggesting little conundrums. de Bankolé is his proxy.

“The best films are like dreams,” Tilda Swinton’s Blonde enthuses in a delightful scene pregnant with meta tensions, her character waxing lyrical on the film noir movies that she loves. The Limits of Control isn’t dream cinema in the expected, cliché sense, but it’s constant yet specific drift weaves a hypnotic spell all of it’s own. Watching it again back in April alongside the aforementioned and similarly spacious TV thriller Too Old To Die Young, I imagined how a 10-hour version of Jarmusch’s film might feel. I would be exceedingly open to seeing this world and its sensibility expanded out, it’s minimalism and meticulous lore unfurled over greater time. Weekly visits into a deliberate and stylised other place as incrementally mysterious and fascinating as 2017’s summer of Twin Peaks: The Return. A flight of fancy, but one I’ll happily keep imagining. I’ll keep revisiting, and dreaming.


PS, I really want that green zip-up hoodie The Lone Man wears at the end of the film once his mission is completed as he slinks inconspicuously back into the general populous. If anyone reading this happens to know where I can get this vintage Puma top from, LET ME KNOW.

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