The Limits of Control (2009)


Since I started paying more attention to the films that I watch and taking them more seriously, I like to believe that I’ve learned a thing or two about films. But then along comes something like Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control which leaves me thinking that I know nothing at all.

To be fair, I am not alone in finding this film to be almost completely incomprehensible if its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 43% is anything to go by. Throughout the film, we watch the nameless protagonist, played by an almost completely expressionless Isaach De Bankolé, interact with a succession of equally inscrutable characters. We gather that he is on a mission of some kind but we have no idea what it is. All we know is that each new contact gives him cryptic instructions such as “Wait three days until you see the bread.” This doesn’t prevent him from somehow being able to understand the instructions and carry them out.

Yet it would be unwise to lightly dismiss this as pretentious nonsense. Jarmusch is a highly respected director and this film has serious acting star power, not to mention being photographed by Christopher Doyle. So you feel obliged to try your best to discern some kind of meaning out of all this. And there is sense of a sort. Each of the contacts has an odd little philosophical monologue to give. One talks about music, another about films, yet another about science and so forth. But the themes seem similar, about how the boundaries between perception and reality are blurred.

At the same time, the pattern of the protagonist’s actions repeats endlessly, so much so that your attention is immediately seized by every deviation from the norm. He lays unmoving in bed all night with his eyes wide open, gets up and goes through a tai chi routine, goes to a cafe and invariably orders two expressos in two separate cups and so on. So when he finds a naked woman in his bed or visibly reacts to a dance performance, it feels electrifying.

Still, while the ending which I won’t spoil here did add a little to my understanding, it never quite gels together into a coherent whole for me and I’m left feeling unsatisfied. Perhaps there were additional layers of meaning that I missed. Or perhaps it really is just an exercise in self-indulgence after all that no one except for the director himself understood. I will never know. In any case, since I couldn’t really understand it I have to judge it a failure, even if it is intriguing.

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