The Limits of Control Review

At a recent interview, at the MoMA in New York, Jim Jarmusch told a story of a time when he visited a paint supply store and took home all the paint samples for different types of white. Once home he spread these all across his floor and ‘tripped out’ just looking at them. All of the samples when viewed individually appeared to be just simply white but when viewed together the differences became startling. He also told of staying up late to make lists of all the things he likes, not just cultural artefacts but things such as women’s legs or differing skin tones.

One thing that would surely now make it onto one of his lists is his recent passion for a particular style of music. Often referred to as Doom Metal, Stoner Rock or just simply Sludge, it is a type of predominantly guitar based music which is very slow, tracks building over long periods of time (albums are often just one or two tracks) and often focusing on metal riffs stretched and pulled to last minutes rather than seconds. Tracks often feature repetition with Drop D tuned riffs playing over and over with only subtle changes, shifting patterns within the track. Key bands in this field include Dylan Carlson’s band Earth, Japanese band Boris (named after a track by stoner rock legends, The Melvins), Sleep, Om, Sunn O))) and their many side projects. These bands and their music often have more in common with composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich than with their Rock contemporaries.

Although the above may seem like it does little to introduce the film, I actually feel an understanding of Jarmusch’s influences in this instance does more to frame the film than a mere description of the plot. Indeed the plot has been a point of consternation amongst many reviewers, the problem for them often being that they feel it does not have one.

Jarmusch has said that filming began with just a 26 page short story/script and the film was developed from this on location in Madrid, Seville and Almeria (famed for it’s use in many Spaghetti Westerns). Jim Jarmusch’s intentions in making The Limits of Control seem clear though and have become even more obvious in recent interviews,

It was like, let’s see, can we make an action film with no action in it? Can we make a narrative where the plot is just like a series of repeated variations on something? Can we have a film with characters that have no background, no past, no present, no name, we don’t know what they represent, they’re metaphorical? These are all the things that people expect, so we were trying to remove the things that they would expect, with (chuckles) the predictable results, in the United States, of not a whole lot of people being interested in the film. That’s okay, you know, we thought it was successful experiment on our part.

(The Wire – Jim Jarmusch Invisible Jukebox)

The settings, both interior and exterior, are beautifully and intriguingly shot by Christopher Doyle in his first and I hope not last collaboration with Jarmusch. The combination of the beauty of the cinematography and the sweeping epic soundtrack help absorb the viewer into the film and replacing the narrative as the driving force that holds the audience throughout.

The story of The Limits of Control focuses on a character named simply ‘Lone Man’, played by the striking Isaach De Bankole. The Lone Man is an assassin and like the protagonist of Jarmusch’s earlier film, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, he is a stoic and zen-like contract killer. Whilst on a job his rules include no mobile phones, no guns and no sex. The latter is particularly important when he finds a nude Paz de la Huerta in his bed.

Paz de la Huerta has the simple character name, ‘Nude’. The Lone Man is also met by a variety of other characters who send him into the next stage in his journey. These are a range of fantastic actors, also with simplistic character names, including John Hurt (Guitar), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Luis Tosar (Violin) and Gael Garcia Bernal (Mexican).

The final meeting is with the ‘American’ played with uncharacteristic spitting venom by Bill Murray. All of these actors seem to have little to work with, with regards to characterisation or back story and Jarmusch seems, as in many of his previous films, to be more concerned with their innate nature, how they appear on film and hold the camera, something which has been used as a criticism by many but is something that attracts me to the work of Jarmusch. In the main sequence with the Blonde, in speaking about films, she comments that she cannot often remember whether something was a dream or a film (the example she gives is from Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and this concept is important later in the film when a location and painting blend to a point where it is unclear which is the copy and which is the original. The events of the film also seem unreal like a recurring dream constantly changing and one that both the viewer and and the protagonist awaken from in the final shots.

Like the music that punctuates the soundtrack and was obviously such a huge influence, the pacing of the film is incredibly slow and almost endlessly repetitive. Each time the Lone Man sits he orders two espressos, not a double but two espressos, providing both an unusual character trait and a point of humour. Each time the espressos are different but they remain a constant. This is the case with almost every detail in the film.

Every character who comes to meet him asks “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?”, to which he always replies in English simply “No”. They then proceed to ask him if he is interested in a particular subject and then briefly talk about this, hand him a matchbox with a boxer on and then leave. This, like everything in the film, is constant throughout but ever-changing. Each moment in the film seems to be a repetition of a previous one with an almost random change. I would not be surprised to learn that the Oblique Strategies or the I Ching were used on set in order to make decisions.

The film is, as Jarmusch asserts above, an experiment, it is a brave attempt to take the same approach to making a film as Sunn O))) would take to constructing a music track. Inherent in this approach is a problem of the audience understanding and liking this conceit. Jarmusch has commented that the film can be a treasure hunt or purely a surface experience. I disagree slightly as I feel approaching the film as a treasure hunt will be more infuriating than rewarding and watching the film on a purely surface level will be unrewarding in an entirely different way. The film needs to be experienced and needs to wash over the viewer, enveloping them in the construct. Like listening to an epic, repetitive guitar riff for an hour on Earth’s excellent Earth 2, The Limits of Control is not for everyone, but if you are open to the film, sit back and engage with the experience of the piece, it is incredibly rewarding.