Jarmusch tests limits of the action film

Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankolé star in "The Limits of Control."She is one of the people he meets as he travels about.
Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankolé star in "The Limits of Control."She is one of the people he meets as he travels about.
Posted: May 15, 2009

The process of travel - of getting from Point A to Point B, and the unexpected encounters, detours, and downtime presented to the traveler - has long been a theme of Jim Jarmusch's films.

Night on Earth, after all, is about taxi drivers and the fares they pick up in various cities around the globe. Bill Murray's quest to find a long-lost son in Broken Flowers isn't really about finding that son, it's about the journey, about his encounters with the women along the way - his character's exes - and discovering what they've become, and maybe discovering what he's become, too.

So it's no surprise to find that the pioneer indie filmmaker's take on the international thriller - and that's what The Limits of Control is - isn't exactly teeming with elaborate action sequences and grand confrontations.

Almost absurdly quiet and observant, The Limits of Control is about the space between the action, the steps along the way. Set in Spain and starring the mesmerizing Isaach De Bankolé (the Parisian cabbie in Night on Earth, and also the exiled African prime minister on this season's nothing-but-action 24), Jarmusch's movie essentially follows its unnamed protagonist as he moves into town, goes to a cafe, orders two single espressos (not a double), and, well, waits. Eventually someone meanders by, sits at his table, asks if he speaks Spanish (he says he doesn't), and then slips him a matchbox containing a piece of paper written in code.

The someones he meets along the way - in Madrid, in Seville, in the parched Spanish countryside - include Tilda Swinton, blond-wigged and talking Hitchcock; John Hurt, sporting a guitar case and a worried mien; and Gael García Bernal, acting tough and driving a truck.

De Bankolé's character drops in on a club to watch (and listen to) a flamenco dance, and has several encounters with a raven-haired mystery girl (Paz de la Huerta) in high heels, a see-through raincoat, and nothing else. This woman is, depending on your view, a kind of film-noir muse or a parody of a femme fatale. (Or both.)

In fact, for the impatient viewer, Jarmusch's pulpy, poetic exercise will probably feel hopelessly, unintentionally parodic, prompting disdain and derision. Consider yourself warned - not everyone's going to go for this business. But I did. The Limits of Control is an odyssey where small moments loom large, and where the simplest of pleasures take on, if not a deeper significance, a more mindful one.

Shot by Wong Kar Wai's great cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, The Limits of Control opens with a shot of De Bankolé in an airport men's room stall, doing tai chi - a silent ritual he continues throughout the film. Full of great architecture and art (the Lone Man, as he is called in the credits, visits a Madrid museum, where he studies paintings keenly), the film boasts a soundtrack alert to the noises of the street, the rhythms and hums of a city. The movie, like Jarmusch's Ghost Dog (with Forest Whitaker as a kindred sort of hitman hero), displays a Zenlike awareness of the sensorial and auditory universe.

The Limits of Control succumbs to genre convention in its final act, offering a frustratingly fateful meeting between this man we've been accompanying and the man that is the reason for all this travel, all this trouble.

I would have preferred to have watched De Bankolé simply head for another town, to another cafe. Let the Lone Man order two more single espressos and see who turns the corner to strike up a conversation. Who needs violence? Who needs conclusion?


The Limits of Control *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Jim Jarmusch. With Isaach De Bankolé, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.

Parent's guide: R (nudity, profanity, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five


Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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