Friday, May 1, 2009

The Limits of Control


The review was published in the May issue of ICON and is republished with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Next month's featured review: Away We Go.

The Limits of Control, the new film from independent director deity Jim Jarmusch, is the worst kind of movie: It keeps you bristling in anticipation for two hours, as you wait for anything to happen. This is the kind of movie I loathe, where a germ of a funky idea (sprinkled with a touch of artiness and a dash of pretension) get stretched into an intolerable, lifeless affair that some misguided folks will deem intelligent and bold.

A movie like this has to have a stony protagonist, and we get one in Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé), a well-dressed anti-hero who travels throughout Spain performing a number of secretive trades with an array of mysterious folks, all of whom talk like drunken philosophy majors. One time he listens to a mysterious blonde (Tilda Swinton) who loves old movies and how they illuminate the past. Another time he meets with a guitar-carrying fellow (John Hurt) who talks about bohemians. And so on. He's trailed by a lovely young woman (Paz de la Huerta)--the only consistent presence aside from the stylish matchboxes he exchanges with his contacts--who usually wears nothing more than a pair of glasses and a sheer raincoat. Sometimes Lone Man wanders the town where he's staying, watching a flamenco performance or visiting a museum, where bigger truths are revealed.

Jarmusch, of course, doesn't clue us into these truths, a huge part as to why the movie goes nowhere. You know that maxim about how with great musicians it's all about the notes they don't play? Well, Jarmusch spends two hours with his guitar unplugged in his lap. I like a director who appreciates pauses, who allows the viewers to settle into their onscreen world, but Jarmusch never engages us. He gives us some kind of existential goose chase, where the hero rises above the outside world, leading to a final, fatal confrontation with a well-dressed powerful American (Bill Murray), who represents commercialism, the lowest common denominator, and (just a guess) the reasons that make going to the movies fun.

God forbid the director/writer tries to entertain us--Jarmusch's idea of a joke is to have the Lone Man's various contacts inquire if he speaks Spanish. And he favors lots of wide, striking shots, so there's a feeling that Lone Man is on a quest for something, which may be a metaphor on man's search for truth and fulfillment. But this doesn't work if you make no connection to your viewers. The audience's job here is to applaud the ideas being expressed, bask in the presence of art house stars like Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal and Swinton, and enjoy how the movie does something by doing nothing. Really, it's a depressing waste of our time as Jarmusch wallows in independent cinema artifice while showing us not a trace of vulnerability. The only thing worse than a maudlin, weepy movie, is one sporting a permanent poker face.

Watching The Limits of Control I felt like a rube. It's not like I'm looking for explosions or dick jokes. That's what the multiplex's summer movie season is for, and I'm sure not expecting all that from the guy who directed Stranger than Paradise and Broken Flowers. Just don't make me feel like I'm being talked at in riddles. I can't put my head around The Limits of Control. It's clearly about something, but it's too boring, too cool, and too self-important to interpret. That's fine by me. The movie offers us nothing except a heaping portion of contempt. [R]

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