The Limits of Control (Focus Features, R)

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film_limits_sm.jpgNavigating Jarmusch's lucid dream isn't the difficult part; its path is lined with the familiar.

 

 

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Though Rotten Tomatoes may lead you to believe otherwise, The Limits of Control is Jim Jarmusch's finest offering in a decade. Fully diving into the abstract after that puzzling Broken Flowers ending, Jarmusch sets asides his usual influences (Yasujiro Ozu and Seijun Suzuki, to name a few) for a different batch. Think Jean-Pierre Melville by way of Alejandro Jodorowsky, with a little of Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating thrown in. Describing a film by what it reminds us of can sometimes be a dismissive act, but in The Limits of Control, Jarmusch invites these comparisons.

Tilda Swinton, clad in cowboy hat and white-blonde wig, explains to Isaach De Bankolé, the hero of the film who's credited simply as "Lone Man": "Movies are like dreams you're never really sure you've had." That line, which Jarmusch took from a speech Swinton gave at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2006, ushers the patient viewer, willing to allow the director his obsessions, into The Limits of Control. It is Jarmusch at his most coded, but it's still unmistakably him. Swinton's arrival into the film as the third of De Bankolé's visitors while on a covert mission in Spain is both the guiding light of the film and the point of surrender, in which you decide whether or not you want to accompany Jarmusch and De Bankloé on their journey. Jarmusch acknowledges the fundamental read of the film, as cryptic individuals enter and leave the film while actions and dialogue (particularly "¿Usted no habla español, verdad?" with which each of his visitors greet him) repeat themselves.

Navigating Jarmusch's lucid dream isn't the difficult part. Its path is lined with the familiar, from its cast (De Bankolé, Swinton, Bill Murray, Alex Descas, John Hurt and Youki Kudoh have all worked with the director in the past) to its implied (Point Blank) and declared (The Lady from Shanghai) cinematic affinities, which surface as both homages to other films and reflexive cues to the director's other work. The difficult part becomes assessing the sometimes arcane, occasionally misleading codes. De Bankolé's quest, we learn, ends with Bill Murray's character. Murray doesn't hide the fact that he's channeling Dick Cheney, and Jarmusch's doesn't, either, crediting him as simply "American." So what does De Bankolé's mission signify? Following the strict instruction of the men who delivered his assignment (Descas and Jean-François Stévenin), De Bankolé never speaks Spanish, despite the Jesus-in-the-desert-like temptation from all of his visitors. He sternly utters "no" when a group of children ask if he's an American gangster (it's possibly worth noting that Murray and Paz de la Huerta, as "Nude," are the only members of the cast from the United States). Each of these signs point toward a critical parable of America, or maybe a fantasy of retribution for the George W. Bush era. Putting the pieces together isn't a simple task.

Even those who see the film as critically indulgent and without reward would probably agree that, despite those feelings, Jarmusch's visual and musical tastes are as good as they've ever been. Like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Neil Young, RZA and Mulatu Astatke before them, Japanese trio Boris and "doom metal" group Sunn O))), among others, provide the musical landscape for The Limits of Control, giving it an ambient, space-rock feel. Lauded cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love) shot the film in various Spanish locales. The Limits of Control doesn't reach the awe of either Céline and Julie Go Boating or The Holy Mountain, but it's a significant work from Jarmusch, whose last two films, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers, felt lazy and confused, respectively. No matter your disposition toward it, The Limits of Control is neither of those things. | Joe Bowman

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