The Lone Man sits in an outdoor cafe. He orders two espressos, separate cups. (Woe to the poor waiter who brings him a double espresso. The Lone Man is fussy about his coffee.) He waits quietly, sipping and staring into the middle distance. Soon a stranger approaches and asks, You dont speak Spanish, do you?
Wooden matchbooks are exchanged, inside of which are tiny slips of paper containing numerical codes. The Lone Man studies these numbers intently for a moment or two before eating the paper.
Eventually, the stranger will break the silence by asking, I dont suppose youre interested in before launching into a long monologue about disappearing cultures, endangered art forms or whatever else happened to be on writer/director Jim Jarmuschs mind that morning.
Following the coded instructions, the Lone Man changes locations, sits down at a different outdoor cafe and the same scene begins againand again. Rinse, wash, repeat, and thats pretty much the entire movie, folks.
The Limits of Control seeks to turn repetition into incantation. Thanks to some brilliant visuals and a killer soundtrack, there are moments when it almost even comes close to succeeding. Alas, most of the time its an excruciating bore.
It pains me to say this, as ever since 1984s Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch has consistently (if not exactly prolifically) turned out challenging, delightfully idiosyncratic and deeply personal pictures with artistic ambitions that tend to tower over the mumbling white-guy romantic woes of our increasingly homogenized indie film scene. Hes a national treasure, and The Limits of Control is his first stinker.
Based on a short story that Jarmusch freely admits he never adapted into a proper screenplay, Limits is a prolonged homage to John Boormans psychedelic 1967 masterpiece Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin as a poker-faced avenging angel of death cutting a swath through the underworld in an impeccable suit.
The Lone Man is played here by Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankol with an appropriately Marvin-esque level of stoicism, and a similar taste for snazzy fashions. But the big difference here is that in Point Blank Lee Marvin stomped around kicking the shit out of people instead of just drinking coffee and listening to them ramble.
Repetition is key, repetition is key, repetition is key. The opening monologue is delivered in Creole (spoken by a character named Creole, no less), translated by an on-screen interpreter and simultaneously subtitled. Some of these same phrases are later sung by a flamenco dancer for no discernible reason. The Lone Man encounters all sorts of cool character actors from the international festival circuit, but whether hes listening to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garca Bernal or Hiam Abbass, a vast chunk of their words remain the same: The universe has no center and no edges. He who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery. You dont speak Spanish, do you?
Running time: 116 minutes
From Coffee and Cigarettes:
Alfred: Hes a very committed environmentalist.
Steve: Spike Jonze is a tree hugger? Jesus, I never wouldve had him down as that.
Alfred: Well ... I think he prefers the term leaf people.
If youre in the right frame of mind, The Limits of Controls cyclical, meditative groove might possibly be transporting. Mad genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle shoots the Madrid and Seville locations as drool-worthy, hypnotic colorscapes, and theres a throbbing majesty to the music by Japanese metal band Boris.
Butironically for a film so concerned with repetitiontoo much of Limits feels recycled from Jarmuschs earlier, better films. His Ghost Dog already explored a similar loner assassin living by an inscrutable code, and the structural device of thematically redundant overlapping conversations provided much more entertainment value in his 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes. Despite a metric ton of references to Rimbaud, Burroughs, Hitchcock and Godard, The Limits of Control doesnt seem to have much of a purpose beyond setting a mood and name-checking Jarmuschs many influences and favorites.
Until the climactic lunge at political profundity, which features a searing Bill Murray cameo as a Dick Cheney-esque devil named American, and an unfortunate drift into risible metaphor. By turning an ancient guitar string into weapon, is Jarmusch really trying to say that corrosive industrialists can be dispatched via instruments of the arts? Is that really why Ive been watching this dude sit in a cafe drinking espresso for the past two hours? Maybe next time everyone should agree to finish the script before they start shooting.