A contemporary director who continually engages with figures on the margins of society and the gaps and pauses that form the backbone of ordinary life, Jim Jarmusch is regularly cited as the most influential American independent filmmaker since John Cassavetes. Infused with a cinematic sensibility that stretches way beyond US borders, Jarmusch’s cine-literate films can be further characterised by their minimalist aesthetic, their relative disinterest in genre, their economy of narrative, character and dialogue, and their continuing curiosity with colliding cultures and communication issues. Resisting studio benefaction to work entirely without compromise (the Weinstein-funded Dead Man proved an unhappy alliance), Jarmusch scored his biggest commercial success with 2005’s idiosyncratic Broken Flowers.
Aggrieved by suggestions that working with a starry cast was a conscious attempt to broaden his audience, the director, whose work has always been actor-led, has extended his repertory acting company with his newest feature, the enigmatic The Limits of Control. Set largely in the striking and varied landscapes of contemporary Spain (both urban and otherwise), the film has been described by Jarmusch as his attempt to remake John Boorman’s Point Blank via Jacques Rivette and Michelangelo Antonioni. Reaction has thus far been lukewarm, with a cacophony of hostile notices chastising Jarmusch for veering into wilful obscurity and, gasp, outright pretension. Variety‘s Todd McCarthy described the film as ‘a self-indulgence’ that ‘approaches self-parody’; patience-testing and vacuous was his final summation.
Marshalling actors including Isaach De Bankolé (in their fourth collaboration), Bill Murray (their third), Tilda Swinton and John Hurt (their second), Gael García Bernal, and Luis Tosar, Jarmusch certainly seems to have kicked against the perceived conventionality of Broken Embraces, making an elliptical and deliberately awkward hit-man ‘thriller’ that is as extreme an art film as you are likely to see all year. Retaining a trademark and playful interest in coffee and cigarettes, it begins with a quote from Rimbaud that gestures towards a derangement of the senses, and that is precisely what The Limits of Control proceeds to offer as it follows a mysterious loner (De Bankolé) whose activities remain meticulously outside the law. The sharply suited man is in the process of completing a job, yet trusts no one, and his objectives are not initially divulged. His journey, paradoxically both focused and dreamlike, takes him not only across Spain but also through various states of perception.
Beginning as a 25-page story that was expanded as the shoot progressed, The Limits of Control certainly requires a leap of faith and a degree of patience on the part of its audience, but it is undeserving of the vitriol that has been thrown at it. Beautifully shot by Christopher Doyle, it is an audacious and intuitive work that slowly worms its way into the viewer’s consciousness as repeated codes and meanings slowly reveal themselves. As with any off-road journey, the film takes a few wrong turns and the motif of Paz de la Huerta appearing in various states of undress, though explained within the narrative (her character is credited as ‘The Nude’), feels lurid and unnecessary. Perhaps best approached and enjoyed as an interesting excursion, Jarmusch’s twelfth feature as director suggests a continued desire to defy expectation and grapple with the possibilities of the medium. In an era of rampant complacency, he’s to be admired for refusing to abandon his principles.