The Limits of Control
“As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers,” says Arthur Rimbaud at the start of The Drunken Boat, a poem about being lost at sea. These two lines serve as the epigraph for The Limits of Control, a spiritual odyssey from Jim Jarmusch, one of the pioneers of the independent film scene in America back in the 1980s when independent film-making meant more than a quirky release from Fox Searchlight.
The Limits of Control drifts through its two-hour running time like a transcendentalist willingly riding the infinite current. It is nothing if not a tone poem with Jarmusch endlessly riffing on the linguistics of his film like a veteran jazz musician. The most striking of these elements is the cinematography by Christopher Doyle who treats the Spanish landscape like a canvas; every color on-screen is imbued with the thick, rich texture of fresh paint. Editor Jay Rabinowitz cuts the images together rhythmically, separating each moment into its appropriate stanza. Finally, the soundtrack, primarily produced by the noise bands Boris, Sunn O)) and Bad Rabbit – fronted incidentally by Mr. Jarmusch himself – washes over the mise-en-scene and completes the hypnotic tableaux.
After making feature films for 25 years, Jarmusch has delivered his most confident and skillful work to date, and whether or not you as a viewer decide to indulge in his vision depends on the limits of your self-control. At times, the pervasive variations on the same scene, with the Lone Man drinking double espressos in separate cups while his mysterious contacts lecture him about films or music or art or drugs, does little but agitate. The Limits of Control recalls Dead Man, Jarmusch’s brilliant psychedelic western in which Johnny Depp navigates his way into death both physically and spiritually, but unlike Dead Man, it is impossible to connect with the film on a human level. In fact, the Lone Man hardly seems human at all. As such, it’s difficult to care about what happens to him by the end of the film.
Then again, that’s not really the point of the piece. To criticize it based on traditional narrative requirements seems pointless anyway. Either you will allow yourself to be swept away by the current of The Limits of Control or you will sink into your seat and repeatedly look at your watch for the forthcoming two hours. This is the most difficult review I’ve ever written simply because there is little to say beyond a recommendation to see it for yourself and make up your own mind. Personally, I need to see it again. In its surprisingly thrilling conclusion, featuring a chilling albeit brief performance by Bill Murray as he channels the worst of Cheney and Rumsfeld, all the puzzle pieces fall into place in the form of a moment of clarity. Perhaps fully knowing what to expect upon a second viewing will allow for the spiritual experience it desires to create. At the very least, it is a film by a master who has miraculously managed to stay defiantly non-commercial in an industry that worships at the alter of the Almighty Dollar. And that alone deserves our respect.