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Review: ‘The Limits Of Control’ Is A Ponderous Fart In The Wind*

To paraphrase my third favorite dead playwright, The Limits Of Control is a tale told by an idiot, full of pubic mound and Murray, signifying nothing.
By  · Published on April 30th, 2009

To paraphrase my third favorite dead playwright, The Limits Of Control is a tale told by an idiot, full of pubic mound and Murray, signifying nothing.

And that’s not exactly true… there’s actually very little mound or Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch’s new film, yet they remain the only highlights throughout this two-hour masturbatory meditation on existentialism, repetition, and pretentious pondering. I expect to be accused of just not getting it or of missing the point, but I would argue that there is neither a point nor anything to get. Which may in fact be the point?

Isaach De Bankolé plays an unnamed protagonist (labeled as Lone Man in the credits) on an assignment/quest/spirit-walk to do/find/drink something somewhere in Spain. I’m not being coy or secretive here as the film really never makes it clear. (Hell, it never even reaches the level of murky.) The silent man makes his way to Madrid, sets up shop in a high-rise hotel, and then begins a routine that will repeat itself ad nauseum throughout the film. Sit at cafe, order two espressos, meet quirky character who opens each exchange with “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?”, trade matchboxes, read and swallow obscurely coded piece of paper within, etc.  There are also repeated scenes of him doing tai-chi, laying awake in bed, and looking at various paintings that ever-so-slightly mirror his current situation.

The film hints at several things, a plot amongst them, but never follows through. Ominous “Americano” black helicopters whir overhead, a woman is kidnapped, a heavily armed compound sits in the Spanish desert… these trappings combined with Lone Man’s implied quest lend the film the implication of genre aspirations that it never fulfills. And it wouldn’t need to if it fulfilled anything at all aside from a metaphysical prescription for sleeping pills.

Each meeting at the cafe plays out almost exactly the same with the only variance being the character he meets and the babble they spout before handing him the next matchbox. Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Youki Kudoh all got free trips to Spain out of this which seems to be the only reason they all agreed to these minuscule cameos. “The universe has no center and no edges,” says one. “Among us there are those who are not among us,” says another. The most telling and trite seems to come from Swinton’s absurdly dressed and bewigged cowgirl who states “The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you really had.” This could mean a) the entire film is a dream since Lone Man never seems to actually sleep, b) it refers to the slow, dream-like atmosphere that pervades much of the movie, or c) I fell asleep during the movie and only dreamt I was watching a bad movie.

As mentioned at the start, there are two singular but brief attention-getters in the film. Paz de la Huerte stars as the aptly named Nude, a temptress who appears in Lone Man’s hotel room wearing only glasses and holding a gun… seriously one of the sexiest cinematic images to hit theaters in quite some time. She’s presumably there to distract him from his goal (and distract the viewer from their wristwatch), but like every other character in the film she has no real purpose. Bill Murray is American (per the credits) and only shows up in the final ten minutes to mark the conclusion of Lone Man’s journey. Murray can’t help but invigorate the movie with his semi-serious and foul-mouthed ranting, but it comes too late to save the film (let alone give it any meaning).

The Limits Of Control works best (or only) as a travelogue on Spain. Jarmusch borrows Kar Wai Wong cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the results are unsurprisingly beautiful. Madrid’s cityscape at night, the hotel’s odd interior architecture, Sevilla’s byzantine alleys and streets, abandoned desert landscapes and homes, Paz de la Huerte’s behind… the movie is a sumptuous visual feast.  Unfortunately, the meal is filled with nothing but empty calories.  (No ass-eating implication intended.)

I never understood or agreed with complaints against Wes Anderson and his “idiosyncratic cinema” (at least not until The Darjeeling Limited anyway), but Jarmusch’s film has shown me the light. Critics of Anderson’s pre-Darjeeling films are still wrong of course, but now I see what they were trying to say. An Indie auteur can indeed get trapped up his own asshole.

* The title for this review comes courtesy of The Playlist who came away from the film with a slightly different opinion than I did.  Read it here.

The Limits Of Control opens tomorrow in limited release. Check out the trailer below.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.