Warning: the following post contains spoilers beginning in the third paragraph.
Beset by a series of middling reviews and a release date that is hardly conducive to earning the film additional prestige, writer-director Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is nonetheless the filmmaker's best in at least a decade, and one of the stronger works of 2009's first-half. Conceived, according to the director, as if Jacques Rivette had remade John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), The Limits of Control consequently serves as a Rivette-inspired book-end for the American independent cinema of the present decade, pairing with David Lynch's similarly influenced 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive (which remains, for this piece's authors, the great American film of the 2000s). In other words, The Limits of Control represents a definitive turn toward the surreal modernism of Rivette and Lynch, away perhaps from Jarmusch's position on the vanguard of a cinematic postmodernism, albeit in a form that appears more concerted than the latter's highly intuitive approach.
Starring the Côte d'Ivoire-born Isaach De Bankolé as "Lone Man" - supporting players are likewise identified simply as "Nude" (Paz de la Huerta) and "Blonde" (Tilda Swinton), for example - The Limits of Control follows the lead through a trio of tasks that Jarmusch delineates through Lone Man's sequence of shellacked jackets and jewel-toned shirts (which remain unchanged for the duration of each job). De Bankolé remains impassive and untalkative throughout the film, where each conversation is introduced with his conversant asking if he doesn't speak Spanish; he always orders two espressos in separate cups, established in an early, characteristically wry conversation; and The Lone Man practices tai-chi in his empty hotel rooms, which Jarmusch compares to a subsequent Andalusian flamenco performance. In this gestural similarity, the director's signature conflation of cultures, their postmodern admixture, emerges.
Still, The Limits of Control is conceivably the director's most modernist work, which is established in part through the director's integration of four Reina Sofia-housed art works: as Nick Dawson identifies them on "A Cultural Glossary to The Limits of Control," we consecutively see "El Violin" (1916) by Juan Gris, "Desnudo" (1922) by Roberto Fernández Balbuena, "Madrid Desde Capitán Haya" (1987 – 1994) by Antonio López García and "Gran Sábana" (1968) by Antoni Tapies. With each, all of which explicitly belong to the Spanish modernist canon, Jarmusch introduces the key characters, motifs and thematic concepts that compose his narrative. The cubist "El Violin," for example, in addition to echoing this instrument's presence in the narrative, suggests the picture's indistinct temporality; "Desnudo" foretells the dream-like entry of de la Huerta's likewise named Nude; López García's painterly Madrid cityscape (an artist best known to cineastes as the subject of Victor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun, 1992) provides a model for the film's subjective understanding of the external world - we are reminded repeatedly that "reality is arbitrary" and that "everything is a matter of perception"; and lastly, the Tapies confers Lone Man's reduction to nothingness, or better perhaps, to a zero point following his final job. Jarmusch succeeds this final museum encounter with Lone Man's change into street clothes, sportswear with an African insignia, and his disappearance into the world community outside.
This conclusion marks the end of the film's Passenger-style (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) journey from the glass and steel of the north to the centuries-old pueblos blancos of Andalusia, and follows the film's lone on-screen hit job, also similar to the Antonioni film, which famously concludes likewise, with Bill Murray, the personification for Jarmusch of all that is wrong with American foreign policy, media and culture, the subject of the assassination. In undertaking this hit, the director identifies himself with those people that Murray's flag pin-wearing villain, comparable in appearance to Dick Cheney, condemns: the artists and musicians, hallucinatory drug users and and holders of bohemian values. This is the film's world community, its check to American militaristic hegemony, that Jarmusch proposes. Ultimately, emerging from Limit's rigorous high-modernist framework, is a sincere, charming, and perhaps somewhat juvenile celebration of art-for-arts sake. Make no mistake, Jarmusch is for the artists, and for the art that provides a hallucination within a universe that has no "center" or edges, a dream "you're never sure you've had."
This last admonition, ascribed to the best films, is made by Swinton's Blonde, who similarly identifies The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) as a source for not only her character but from the film more broadly. The Blonde, in fact, transitions into and out of the fiction marked by a poster depicting the aforesaid in a film read, leaving traces likewise, as will the nude, in a shifting set of transparent visual motifs; in Rivettian fashion, therefore, the fictional world bleeds into the universe that supposedly houses it. There is no outside for The Limits of Control's fiction, where characters such as the Nude appear before they fulfill their narrative function; though Jarmusch imposes a trajectory onto his film, he refuses to ground his lead in a forward flowing temporality. His hallucinations rather seem to disclose the variable temporality established in the Gris reference. As one of Lone Man's contracts puts it, "each one of us is a set of shifting molecules, spinning in ecstasy," providing a framework for the film's flux, Jarmusch's understanding of reality, and even a decisive metaphor for our current digital age.
The Limits of Control thus strongly structures and formalizes the film's key thematic concerns, procured through a clearly readable semantic field. This is a film that makes its own interpretation crystalline. At the same time, Jarmusch, like fellow auteurs Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, produces his organically consistent art for a world view that is, for this essay's authors, less than convincing: even more in fact than a malevolent nature (Grizzly Man, 2005) or nature that wars against itself (The Thin Red Line, 1998), Jarmusch's 'arbitrary' reality, its skepticism informed by perceptual uncertainty, hearkens back to the fan-boy mysticism of the Matrix trilogy. (In many respects, The Limits of Control is its high modernist corollary.) Reality, let us be clear, is not arbitrary, even if perception produces this effect. Nevertheless, the strength of The Limits of Control is the comprehensive expression of the film's ideas, however limited or dated, through its malleable modernist form. Indeed, this is a form that not only de-centers its protagonist, forging an on-going, waking dream, but one that confers this sense of the subjective in stylistic devices from bright flashes and visual disturbances to the frame to an occasionally atonal electronic score, set amid Spain's most chimeric places, from the fungus-like Torres Blancas (pictured) down to Murray's white, hillside fortress, into which Lone Man wills himself. Structured on a principle of theme and variation The Limits of Control involves a great deal of repetition, but far from serving as a minimalist test of its spectators' collective will, it strives more often then not to provide purely sensual pleasures -- syncing up its free flowing images to a pulsating electronic score, it often brings to mind a very thoughtful music video.
So, to the middling reviews: pretentious? Perhaps. Boring? Certainly not.