Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (2009, Jim Jarmusch)

American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is back with another cryptic, layered and visually significant film that should keep the art house crowd happy. Of course, that all depends on if you can catch the film at your local theatre. I was highly fortunate to see it on opening weekend because it was completely gone 2 weeks later. I can literally say that I was one of the very few to have seen Limits of Control on the big screen, at least in my region. And if I remember correctly, there weren’t a whole lot of us at that screening to begin with anyways, so I doubt the film was selling out showings.

But when it comes to director Jarmusch’s work, one shouldn’t expect to get a crowd pleaser à la Brothers Bloom. His films rarely tell straightforward, familiar plots (perhaps Ghost Dog could, potentially, fit that bill, but even that movie had some interesting quirks) and he utilizes the medium of film to great artistic effect, additional emphasis on the ‘artistic’ part of that claim. I haven’t seen many Jarmusch films, but those I did have the pleasure of discovering told me, quite clearly in fact, that an artist was behind the camera, not your everyday storyteller. I love the great American storytellers (Scorsese, Coppola, Speilberg), but it’s interesting to see some rather different hands and minds at work every once in a while, and Jarmusch certainly is different when it comes to American cinema.

The Limits of Control
has actor Isaach De Bankolé (the guy who engages Bond in combat with a huge blade in the hotel staircase in Casino Royale) as the ‘employee’ of an unknown, unnamed ‘organization’ sent to Spain to take care of ‘business’. I make deliberate use of extensive quotation marks because I can only assume this is the setup to the film. The film opens in an airport with De Bankolé’s character meeting with two men dressed for business. They offer some rather cryptic comments and suggestions and a small piece of paper in a matchbox before they send him on his way. The dialogue, as is the case in other Jarmusch films, is at times funny and engaging, but mostly secretive and hard to grasp in the sense that there’s no freaking way you know precisely what’s going on. While in Spain, our protagonist goes from strange encounter to strange encounter with an entire host of offbeat characters who themselves discuss seemingly random subjects and trade little pieces of paper stashed in matchboxes with De Bankolé. Music, film, bohemian lifestyles, physics, each character takes a few minutes to offer some of their thoughts on these subjects while De Bankolé sits and listens. These discussions and transactions usually occur at cafés (with a couple of exceptions), at which point De Bankolé will very explicitly order for espressos in two separate cups. Lest I forget, one night in his hotel room he is met by a vivaciously sexed up agent (I’m guessing all these people are agents of some kind, although for all I know they could be playing a game), played to the hilt by Paz de la Huerta, who usually wears a see-through plastic rain coat. Almost every agent is played by recognizable actors, such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal to name a few.

Visits to the museum, a train ride, quiet afternoons at the cafés, oddball conversations, why in heavens name would such a movie be of any interest to anyone? Well, a short while ago fellow film critic Bill reviewed on his blog Gus Van Sant’s Gerry , a 2002 film about two friends who accidentally get lost in the desert and wander for the next 80 minutes. I thought the film was a terrible bore. It is expertly shot (it’s a Van Sant film after all), but whatever bloody fun, intellectual or not, was supposed to be had with that film was absolutely lost on me. Bill loved it, giving it a perfect score. Well, The Limits of Control is my Gerry. It moves at a slow pace, doesn’t have any significant plot or narrative that drives the movie in the traditional sense, but I had a great time watching it. Like Gerry, the movie looks exquisite. Director Jarmusch always had a great visual eye, but this time couldn’t go wrong by hiring long time Wong Kar Wai collaborating cinematographer Christopher Doyle. They already had the upper hand by filming in Spain, a country I had the privilege of visiting a little bit which is beautiful, but put Jarmusch and Doyle together and the viewer is awarded with a superbly shot film. The shots may not have terribly complex setups, but they all capture the beauty and tone of whatever location or event the audience sees on screen. Night, day, outside at the café, outside in the Spanish countryside, inside De Bankolé’s hotel room as he goes through his tai-chi exercises, at the museum, everything looks great. The most seemingly mundane scenes (like the tai chi sessions) are given care, which makes Control, certainly from a purely visual standpoint, a joy to watch.

De Bankolé doesn’t say very much, but when he speaks it is very deliberate and direct, like when he orders two espressos in two separate cups. ‘Don’t mess with me, I mean business and I have no time to waste’ kind of attitude. I’ve often seen De Bankolé in supporting roles, such as the African militia leader in Casino Royale and as the Haitian ice cream man in Ghost Dog, so it was intriguing to finally watch a film in which he is awarded the center of the stage. Interestingly enough, Jarmusch uses him mostly for his facial expression rather than for dialogue. He does have a great face for the ‘all business’ type of character. But what exactly is his business and what is the point of this entire exercise? Is it merely style or is there some substance to it? I think so, but much like how Bill found much to like in Gerry, with The Limits of Control, you have to figure it out yourself. There is fun to be had on many levels however, not just in piecing together what is going on in terms of plot. I’m almost certain Jarmusch had something specific in mind when writing the script and directing the film, but it has such an open minded artistic quality to it that anybody can come away with something quite different. I liked the individual, one-sided conversations De Bankolé has with his colleagues and contacts. These scenes often flirted with comedy, several of the lines hit the bull’s eye in fact. De Bankolé is such a steely character in the film one would be tempted to associate him with all the brooding hit men heavies we see in those Jason Bourne films. But the people he is associated with are so colourful and different in their individual approaches and styles, that the contrast, not only between each one and De Bankolé’s character, but also between themselves, made me smile a lot throughout the film. Almost any time de la Huerta’s sexed up, semi-naked character showed up, it was played with a strange comedic quality as opposed to wanting to create some genuine sexual tension. This is but one of the many ways in which Jarmucsh is toying with the viewer’s expectations. He is a director in full control of his art and he is testing the limits of that control. De Bankolé looks like a hitman character, but who are these clowns he’s dealing with? Why does he have to visit a museum all the time? De Bankolé himself is wanting of control, as can be assessed in the manner with which he orders his espressos and engages in tai chi. He refuses to use cell phones and refuses to make love with de la Huerta (she even sleeps naked, cuddled in his arms while he lies awake fully dressed). He is in full control of his own idiosyncrasies, but the associates are in full control of the mission, as they direct him where to go. Director Jarmusch is in full control of this movie, and when we think we know what might happen, such as when a semi-naked agent appears, Jarmusch pulls the rug under our feat. By the time the climax arrives, instead of going all out, it’s quiet and quickly taken care of. Even the person ( a pleasant surprise that I’ll refrain from revealing) who is the target of De Bankolé’s mission (if he ever was on a mission to begin with) not only speaks about control and what kind he exercises, but is astounded by De Bankolé’s own control over the situation:

- Antagonist: How the fuck did you get in?
- De Bankolé: I used my imagination.

If you’ve seen the film and left with a completely different take, that’s excellent because I really think that’s the kind of movie this is. Absolutely nothing is spelled out, which means anybody can take make up their own little plot if they see fit. Anybody can have control over the story because it’s so open ended. The duality of control that can be exercised by both the director and the viewer makes the film all the more intriguing and worthwhile. The only limits to the control you have are the ones you yourself create.

That and the fact that the movie takes place in Spain. Sorry if that bothers you. You have no control over that.

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