Bright Lights Film Journal

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch 2009)

The Daily Beast’s Scott Horton reports that a judge in Spain decided today that an investigation of Bush officials involved in torture policy will go forward and can lead to prosecution.

In a ruling in Madrid today, Judge Baltasar Garzón has announced that an inquiry into the Bush administration’s torture policymakers now will proceed to a formal criminal investigation.

— Via The Daily Beast (May 13, 2009).

In one of those peculiar coincidences that Carl Jung liked to call “synchronicities,” Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, The Limits of Control, shows a Dick Cheney-like American (Bill Murray), who resides in a heavily guarded compound, about to receive his just deserts at the hands of a laconic professional known only as Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé, below). Where is the compound located? In Spain.

The Limits of Control is, among other things, a Spanish travelogue film – in much the same way that Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a Spanish travelogue film. After a couple hours in the theater we feel as if we have spent a brief vacation in a foreign country. The Limits of Control‘s backgrounds of landscape and architecture, beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle (2046), are more than just backgrounds – they are part of the film’s raison d’etre.

In the foreground, we watch Lone Man as he tours Spain encountering various contacts (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Youki Kudoh, and others) who give him the pieces of the puzzle he needs in order to complete his assignment. The killer-on-a-mission is a recurring trope in some of the more abstract film noirs (Point Blank, Blast of Silence), but writer-director Jarmusch takes it to a point of even further abstraction. There is a ritualistic quality to the Lone Man’s encounters. Each begins with the contact, whoever he or she might be, asking, “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” not really expecting an answer. Match boxes are exchanged. The contacts speak volubly on various topics – art, music, science, hallucination – while Lone Man says almost nothing. For longtime Jarmusch fans, there’s a deadpan humor inherent in these repetitions.

Between contacts, Lone Man visits a Madrid museum. He stands in a room filled with cubist paintings of violins. At a café, his next contact speaks to him of violins and other wooden instruments, and the memories engrained in the wood. Later, the Lone Man stands in a room filled with paintings of nude women. He returns to his hotel room to find a beautiful woman in his bed (Paz de la Huerta) who throughout the film wears nothing but a pair of glasses and – sometimes – a transparent raincoat.

We are not meant to take all this as literal reality. When Lone Man finally meets Bill Murray’s Cheney-like American, the American ticks off a list of each of the topics discussed at Lone Man’s previous encounters: “This art, music, science, hallucination [etc.] has polluted your mind!”

The title, The Limits of Control, while seeming to refer to the self-control of the hired killer, ultimately refers to the arrogance of the American, a very powerful man, who for all of his power, cannot escape his final reckoning.