REVIEW: The Limits of Control

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
May 8th, 2009

Rating: 7/10

In one of the first scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, a translator is asked to translate something so enigmatic as to border on the laughable. Instead of simply rattling off a workable translation, he pauses, turns to his translatee, and stonily asks, “You want me to translate that? I don’t fucking get it.” And that, in the smallest of possible nutshells, is THE LIMITS OF CONTROL.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is a cyclical experience. So much of the film rests on the near-silent performance of Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole as he goes through same action after same action. The only time his Lone Man puts more than four words together is when ordering his espressos (two in separate cups, always two in separate cups) from a woefully confused Spanish waiter. Beyond that, he’s all restrained action and one- or two-word answers.

Much has been made of these repetitions of certain acts - the espressos, tai chi every morning, not sleeping at night, barely speaking - as the marquee “limits of control,” but there is more to these acts. Lone Man’s routine serves to be lulling, approximating a sense of security for the audience. De Bankole’s immersion in the routines becomes so complete that the film takes on a distinct feeling – as if Lone Man is, simply, the only man in the world. Everything else and everyone else is just blank background.

Eventually, though, his ceaseless routines turn funny, the life of an assassin seems comically boring, the waiting and the exasperating code words and the inevitable exchange of instructions in matchboxes. Lone Man dutifully swallows his coded squares of paper and calmly proceeds onward, waiting for the next cell in this operation to come hurtling at him from nowhere – Paz de la Huerta slinking around him in a clear raincoat and nothing else, Tilda Swinton dancing through a courtyard in an amusing blonde wig, John Hurt toddling across cobblestones holding an ancient guitar.

Swinton’s Blonde wants to talk to Lone Man about films, as other characters will want to talk to him about music and molecules and sex. She wants to talk about Hitchcock and Welles, and then she wants to talk about how some of her favorite scenes in movies are when characters just sit, not saying a word. And then Lone Man and Blonde just sit, not saying a word. And it’s moments like this where THE LIMITS OF CONTROL succeeds – when we all know we’re watching a film and yet it’s still worth watching. It’s when Jarmusch gets too caught up in the cycling and the repetition, a bit too in love with his own powers of control, that the film starts to falter, when those less hardy viewers may choose to check out permanently.

But those who stick around will be rewarded. After over an hour of the lulling of routine, something goes wrong for Lone Man. You get the feeling that this is not the first time things have gone wrong for him, but maybe it’s the first time in a long time. This is when things begin to unravel, derailing what could have been and should have been an easy job. That’s when THE LIMITS OF CONTROL hits its stride, when even the faintest cracks are in seen in Lone Man’s façade, when we finally realize exactly what Lone Man is up against, and also, naturally, when Bill Murray comes into our lives, all “fucks” and a bad toupee. It’s these last thirty or so minutes that make THE LIMITS OF CONTROL so worth watching – it’s the aftermath of when certain limits are reached.

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  • Michael

    Great review! I will have to check this out.

  • allisonloring

    I still think the title of this film is a metaphor for our lives. ;) Either way, awesome review – I had no idea what this movie was about, but this sums it up nicely AND leaves me wanting to go see it myself. 2 thumbs up again.

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