“The Limits of Control” Tests The Limits of Audience Attention
Though its glacial pacing & elliptical dialogue challenges the audience, Jarmusch's 2009 crime thriller is its own fascinating beast.
January 23, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.

As The Limits of Control opens, it casts a spell. In a fine example of form, function, and star all working together, writer-director Jim Jarmusch trains his camera on Isaach De Bankolé’s wonderfully inscrutable features. Hushed and contained in its scope, Control immediately draws the viewer in.

Ten minutes or so later, one begins to wonder if there is any there there. Five minutes after that, the answer becomes clear. This is not a genre exercise that subverts all expectations. It is a genre exercise that strips out everything that makes it compelling.

In broad strokes, The Limits of Control follows The Lone Man (De Bankolé) as he interacts with a series of quirky but nameless characters. He waits, he rejects all earthly pleasures save espresso, and, eventually, he fulfills his role as a killer for hire.

What begins as an intriguingly opaque tone quickly becomes oppressive. De Bankolé authors The Lone Man’s emotional distance well but the closer. He makes the character one you want to see opened up, explored. Alas, Jarmusch has no interest in that. The closer you get to The Lone Man, the more two-dimensional he reveals himself to be. He is a man with a job — killer — a philosophy — reject all temptation — and an obsession — drinking espresso. It is enough to create an aura of mystery around him. However, he quickly begins to feel like the quiet guy at the party. At first you think he must be insular, interesting, and insightful. After two hours of trying to crack him, you are forced to conclude otherwise. The Lone Man is entirely what he presents: non-communicative with a single interest that even he cannot speak to with any level of passion.

It is a genre exercise that strips out everything that makes it compelling.

Jarmusch has long been a fan of coffee. He made an entire film about people enjoying it and the conversations that spring forth as they do. As a set piece, an object of orientation for a film, he more than proved the worthiness of a cup of joe. However, as one of two personality traits, it ends up as being utterly uninteresting.

There are moment where the film shows signs of life, almost always based on the performers. The Blonde (Tilda Swinton) is the right kind of opaque. She speaks in a way that might be either entirely straightforward or festooned with riddles. More importantly, she leaves both before you can fully decided which and before that ambiguity outlives its welcome. 

On a more primal, puerile level, The Nude Woman (Paz de la Huerta) provides the most striking visuals of the film. In a movie where the aesthetic can often best be described as “70s rec room” her unapologetic nakedness and the way de la Huerta can somehow make it sexual or matter of fact depending on the circumstances is the movie’s only special effect. The actor also invests a richness in her character that we never find in The Lone Man. She is literally eye candy but she has a viewpoint, interests, desires, and an occasional sense of, dare we say it, fun.

By the far, the best performer doing a lot with a little is Bill Murray. In his brief turn as The American he gives the film a snarl that hints at an alternate universe Control. It never pierces the minimalistic reality Jarmusch has built. Nonetheless, it energizes the proceedings, finding a way to inject tension without forcing the film into the genre clichés the writer-director so obviously wants nowhere near his film. The Lone Man’s confrontation with The American shows that such a film could exist. A minimalistic thriller that nonetheless has something besides ice water in its veins and cooling espresso in its cups.

The Limits of Control Trailer: