Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Limits of Control

You're overdue for some movie talk. I need a subject to blog about today. Two and two - let's go.

This time, we're taking a look at a fantastic film that most critics and viewers have hated. That alone should tell you outright that I enjoyed it because my tastes are better - and not in the "Hey, Marmaduke wasn't made for critics!" sense - and by establishing this, I am officially firing a shot off the bow of the critical giant that is Roger Ebert.

Oh god, what have I done?

I've been a fan of Jim Jarmusch's films for over half a decade now, having first experienced his work through 2005's Broken Flowers, having taken an interest in it as a result of my following Bill Murray's career turn to art house film over the past fourteen or so years. I enjoyed Broken Flowers, but it was different than any other art house film I'd seen before - and I was pretty well-versed in the more comparatively 'mainstream' art house filmmakers by that point, having plunged into the art house world in the earlier 2000s with Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Richard Kelly, and Terry Zwigoff's works - and intriguing in a way that I struggled to articulate.

In the years that followed, I added Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai to my collection. They each appealed in their own way. Coffee and Cigarettes spans decades with its quirky, enjoyable vignettes. Dead Man became one of my all-time favorite films, a zen-like black and white art house western with a strange sense of humor and a killer original score by Neil Young. Made four years later, Ghost Dog was a perfect follow-up to Dead Man. I caught about twenty minutes of Night on Earth on Showtime at the end of a free preview weekend - the preview ended just as I was getting hooked - just a few weeks ago. And Jarmusch himself even guest-starred on an episode of Bored to Death back in the first season, making fun of himself. All this and my experience with The Limits of Control have successfully convinced me that Jim Jarmusch is one of America's greatest filmmakers, inevitably unappreciated as he is in the mainstream. You can be an amazing filmmaker, and you can be a popular filmmaker - the two rarely overlap. Just ask Christopher Nolan. (His Batman movies and Inception are horribly overrated and frankly not very good.)

On the surface, The Limits of Control is a crime thriller. Three suspicious men meet in an airport. None of them have given names - nor does a single character in the entire film. The ensemble is led by Isaach De Bankolé, who plays a mysterious character simply listed as 'lone man.' He doesn't speak Spanish, but he's been given a job to do in Spain. Exactly who he is, what he does, what his job is, and why it has to be done are not established. And only one of these questions has a straightforward answer - the rest are left floating adrift in a sea of mystery. Feeling frustrated? Use your imagination. That challenge to the audience is central to The Limits of Control.

Starting in Madrid, the lone man follows his cryptic instructions - to visit a cafe near his accommodations and watch for a violin. These instructions lead to a long journey that takes the lone man across Spain, meeting with various mysterious strangers and exchanging color-coded matchboxes containing messages. There's a neurotic violinist (Luis Tosar), a nude woman who constantly tempts the lone man with sex and drapes herself over him at every opportunity (Paz de la Huerta), a blonde woman obsessed with old art house movies (Tilda Swinton), a woman obsessed with molecules (Youki Kudoh), a man with a guitar (John Hurt), a Mexican who discusses dream-like states and peyote (Gael Garcia Bernal), and matchboxes are exchanged with each of them. Between encounters, the lone man wanders the streets, visits art museums, and listens to music.

The script is minimal, built around monologues and exchanges between the mysterious strangers that the lone man - a mysterious stranger himself - and more than telling a concrete story, focuses on the suggestion of plot through repeated cryptic statements and thoughts, subtly expressing the film's themes beneath a gauzy veneer. The lone man himself is nearly silent over the course of the film, and when he speaks at all, it's rarely more than a mere single-syllable word. The other characters have much more to say, speaking in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Japanese. Even if the lone man couldn't understand their words, he could still use his imagination. De Bankolé is the definition of calm, detached, expressionless stoicism in his portrayal of the lone man - one of the coolest film characters ever created. A stoicism to which I can only aspire, but never hope to reach.

At times, The Limits of Control possesses a certain quality that I'd be inclined to call Tarantino-esque, but really, the film embodies the very sort of mood and spirit that Quentin Tarantino has spent much of his career paying self-aware homage to, without ever plunging in headfirst and abandoning all irony. Of course, with characters like Tilda Swinton's, even The Limits of Control is not without its intentionally meta, intensely self-aware moments of absurd humor. It also lacks the reliance on violence that Tarantino's films possess. The film breathes mood, aided only by the visually arresting cinematography of the always-brilliant Christopher Doyle. (Who was also the cinematographer for one of my all-time favorite films that I've written about before, my love of which will stay with me until the day I die.) You could take a still frame from just about any point in films Doyle has done the cinematography on, hang them on the wall in a museum or art gallery, and it would make sense. The film's intensely moody score - peppered with tracks by the Japanese band Boris - also recalls Dead Man and Ghost Dog, imbuing the film with a similarly otherworldly mood.

Beneath the surface, The Limits of Control is no mere crime thriller. It's something else entirely - an experiment in minimalism, a challenge to the audience, pretentious art house masturbation, or a parody of just that, depending on who you ask. Any way you look at it, it's a film for the patient, rewarding only those who give themselves over to the moody world of the film and fully immerse themselves in its seductively mysterious narrative.

As previously mentioned, most critics and viewers have absolutely hated this movie. It's not hard to understand why. Minimalistic films aren't for everyone - taste is subjective - and not every mininalist film is going to work for everybody, let alone something as experimental as The Limits of Control. The structure of the film is a mysterious stranger meeting other mysterious strangers, engaging in a little cryptic dialogue full of odd riddles, and passing coded communiques through matchboxes before parting ways and moving on. All of this is involved in something stranger and greater than a mere criminal plot - something mysterious and existential beyond the boundaries of reality, but they don't quite let the audience in on what it is that everything is building up to: just that something big is coming. A vague and intentionally unclear plot like this is naturally unsatisfying for most.

Still, these sources of dissatisfaction are not necessarily matters of objective flaws, so much as something to be understood subjectively, as the film even touches on in its script. It's not about a story, or even so much its characters - you would expect to fail on those grounds alone, and it still might for many viewers even if they understand what the film is getting at the entire time. But rather, the point of the film is to be drawn into its surreal, dreamlike atmosphere - to leave our world behind for the slick and stylish unreality of The Limits of Control - the definition of cool. It would be hard to make a film cooler.

As they say, la vida no valle nada.

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