The new movie by the celebrated independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is called "The Limits of Control," a title that perfectly sums up his aesthetic. Ever since his breakthrough in 1984 with "Stranger Than Paradise," he's been the American director most associated with a distinctly funky brand of anomie. His movies are all about the limits of control – what happens when you lose it, or, more precisely, realize you never had it.
This is not to say that all Jarmusch movies are created equal. Some, like "Dead Man," leave me cold. But others, like "Night on Earth," with its five disparate stories set in taxis, or "Mystery Train," about foreign wayfarers in a fleabag Memphis hotel, have a mournful lyricism that evoke the same stilled sadness as an Edward Hopper painting. His films are like mood pieces scored for lost souls. As free-floating as some of them appear to be, the best are nevertheless rigorously focused on character. That's why they are so moving. The pervasive sense of loss is, above all, a human tragedy.
In "The Limits of Control," his nameless protagonist – identified in the credits as "Lone Man" – is enacted by Isaach De Bankolé, the Ivory Coast native who has starred in three other Jarmusch films. It's easy to see why. De Bankolé automatically becomes the center of gravity for any image in which he appears; he's a marvelous sculptural presence.
He hardly says a word in "The Limits of Control," where he plays a cryptic criminal on a cryptic mission in Spain. His instructions are transmitted to him in code, and the accomplices with whom he interacts all seem to be acting out a dreamwork agenda. John Hurt, for example, turns up as a self-styled "bohemian." Tilda Swinton is a vision in white with bright blond hair. She might have stepped directly out of a David Lynch movie, except that Lynch's fantasias are often rabidly hallucinatory while Jarmusch's are cooled-out, Zen-like.
The encounters between the Lone Man and his contacts are scripted with essentially the same encoded dialogue. The repetitiveness is supposed to be ritualistic or absurdist or existential – take your pick. For me, the effect was more often than not silly. Only once, when the otherwise virtually wordless Lone Man chews out a waiter for botching an order, did the film break out of its fugue state and enter the "real" world. Otherwise, Jarmusch keeps everything hermetically sealed.
The sensuousness of Spain is certainly here in the imagery, with its baked ochres and crimsons, but Jarmusch's people don't do much to add to the heat. They are too freighted with mysterioso symbolism. A voluptuous tease (Paz de la Huerta) keeps reappearing in the Lone Man's apartment, but even when she strips down to her birthday suit, he's impassive. (She sleeps nude beside him while he lies fully clothed on his back and stares open-eyed at the ceiling – apparently the guy never sleeps.) The only recreational movements he allows himself are tai chi warm-ups.
Even in a middling Jarmusch film such as this one, there are moments that are inexplicably moving. No one captures quite as well as he does the unfathomable sensation of walking alone through the corridors and alleyways of a countryside that is, in all senses of the word, foreign. The eerie displacement of being at large in alien territory is the guiding emotion in Jarmusch's movies, and in none more so than this one. Grade: B (Rated R for graphic nudity and some language.)