Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Limits Of Control

Illustration for article titled The Limits Of Control

In Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control, Isaach De Bankolé travels quietly through Spain in a crisp blue-magenta suit; his endgame isn’t known until the final stop, but it’s safe enough to assume that he’s a professional of the criminal sort. Each person he meets along the way gives him only the information necessary to take his next step, and the audience doesn’t even get to share in those breadcrumbs, so it knows even less than De Bankolé. Point being, The Limits Of Control is about the journey, both through the varied landscape and architecture of Spain, and through the narrow inventory of Jarmusch’s thematic concerns, from the dislocation and culture clash of a stranger in a strange land to the dismantling of genre expectations. So why does it fail where other Jarmusch films have succeeded?

There are several related answers to that question, the first being the existence of Jarmusch’s brilliant Dead Man, a conceptually similar film that revises the Western instead of deconstructing crime fiction. In both cases, Jarmusch’s denial of two-fisted storytelling makes an outlaw’s journey turn relentlessly inward, and the film evolves into a philosophical reverie across an unfamiliar and often wondrous place. The crucial difference between the two is that Depp’s character is immediately engaging and accessible, one in a long tradition of Jarmuschian fish-out-of-water heroes dating back to John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise. De Bankolé plays it much too close to the vest.

Repetition is another feature of Jarmusch’s work, and The Limits Of Control gets much of its structure from De Bankolé’s curious rituals and brief encounters, which always begin with the words, “¿Usted no habla Español, verdad?” De Bankolé’s stoic face gives little away, so we know him through a set of behaviors (his standard order of two espressos in separate cups, his meditative exercises, his receipt of cryptic notes via matchbox) and his meetings with more colorful figures (played in one-off turns by Gael García Bernal, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Bill Murray, among others). The film manages a handful of transcendent moments, like a startlingly dramatic flamenco dance and a vibrant scan of the countryside through a train window, courtesy of the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle. But too much of The Limits Of Control feels canned and airless, so stifled by Jarmusch’s obsessions that it loses all sense of surprise.