Published May 21, 2009"The best movies are the ones you think might have been dreams," says one of the characters in Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. If this film were a dream it would be the one I sometimes get where I'm stuck in an elevator for two hours with a man speaking gibberish.
Isaach De Bankolé plays "the Lone Man," who's unwavering in his lack of overt emotion. He is travelling through Spain on an illegal undercover assignment, the nature of which is mysterious, and he is so rigidly, insularly focused that he practically disappears into himself. As De Bankolé travels to several cities in Spain, we see him meet a series of middlemen, who each give him a matchbox with a secret message inside, ramble aimlessly for several minutes and finally tell him where to meet his next contact. The effect is a bit like water torture.
De Bankolé has maybe 15 lines, which should give you some idea of what a distant character he is. De Bankolé is an imposing physical presence and I swear I caught a few glimmers of fire behind his eyes, but he seems so determined to keep that fire to himself that there's no point of entry for the audience. By anchoring itself with a character that refuses to let his guard down the film is both intriguing and frustrating.
The real problem is Jarmusch's lack of sincerity. As the series of comic caricatures wander into the film and babble incoherently, I kept feeling Jarmusch nudging me in the ribs, as if saying: "Silly people, eh?" The film has a cynical feel, as if Jarmusch were intentionally trashing the themes he raises. Is it a deconstruction of crime fiction? The idea of showing the long, lonely stretches of a major crime job is fascinating but the film seems more like a sardonic endurance test, a cinematic version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."
Does De Bankolé represent spiritual serenity amidst a world of babbling chaos? Jarmusch treats him more as an oddity. Is the penultimate scene an attack on American imperialism or is Jarmusch's clumsy handling of that topic just part of the shaggy dog joke? Jarmusch has made some wonderful movies but this is not going to win many new fans. (Alliance)