Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is one of the rare pieces of cinema that I consider to be fine art. Straight-faced, I'll call it a masterpiece. Not just because of Jarmusch's solid direction, the well placed cameos (read end of review for spoiler theory about the film's best cameo) and endlessly interesting location choices. Not just because of the epic/drone-y guitars (played by both Boris and Jarmusch himself) and Christopher Doyle cinematography, but, most importantly, because of the holes and hints and clues in the story we see unfold.
You can - nay, must - make up your own version of what's going on every time you watch The Limits of Control. I'm guessing that this is the reason why American critics, for the most part, hated this film. These are people who - more than in any other country - are paid to go into a theater ready to quickly judge art - it's their job. They research and think ahead, knowing that they're responsible for insightful ideas and opinions as soon as the credits roll. They must work quick, which is, in my opinion, no way to judge true art.
Most critics who last have found a way to play the game in a way that works. That said, some movies demand more; The Limits of Control is one of them. For this, Jarmusch's tenth - and most beautifully photographed - film, you have to sit back and take in the atmospheres, visuals, mood and tone. You have to live with it for a week. You can follow a story and hope for resolution, but that approach will offer little-to-no satisfaction. Pay attention to the many clues and hints, but don't expect them to ever makes the sense your practical reasoning needs them to make. For this story, Jarmusch wants you to fill in the blanks yourself. The ending is anticlimactic but interesting - our protagonist puts on a jumpsuit in a public bathroom then walks out the door. We hear a helicopter flying for no reason we understand. The acting is subtle yet effective, making small moments like this feel important.
Mostly, though, Limits is all about three key things: 1) location, location, location; 2) visual composition; 3) details and mystery. It's not about good guys and bad guys or lost love or laughs. Christopher Doyle shoots each frame as if he's trying to win a photography contest. His work here, as it is every few pictures, is fine art. Fine art made possible by how strong - yet subtle - all the locations are. Doyle makes every doorway, staircase, train and skyline look so perfect.
As for the story, well ... Isaach De Bankole, who you may recognize from Ghost Dog, plays our protagonist, Lone Man. Lone Man goes from place to place, having the same conversation with a different stranger each time. Each stranger gives him a clue of some sort, helping LM along his way. Bankole does yoga, denies women's sexual advances, lets his strangers ramble in his ear, doesn't like guns, wears a shiny suit and rarely talks.
He always orders two espressos, which I think may be the method by which he identifies himself to his contacts - just one of the many clues we're left to interpret on our own. He meets a number of strangers along the way, including Blonde (Tilda Swinton), Mexican (Gael Garcia Bernal), Nude (Paz de la Huerta), Guitar (John Hurt), Molecules (Youki Kudoh, who you might remember from Jarmusch's Mystery Train) and many others. He finds a diamond in his espresso and always seems two steps ahead of everyone else. With each meeting he's given a coded clue, which he handles with cold precision, eating each clue after memorizing it. In the end, Lone Man finds himself outside a heavily guarded secret complex in the middle of nowhere. He studies a map of the complex from afar, burns it and walks off into the desert. The scenes that follow (ie. the third act) are understated and beautiful - Jarmusch couldn't have found a better ending for his highly poetic, mystery-filled thriller.
Also interesting: through the film Jarmusch makes a number of nods to his past work. When Bankole (who here plays pretty much the opposite of his lively character in Ghost Dog) meets Molecules on a train, we're instantly reminded of Mystery Train, which a nearly identical series of shots take place. But here, with the help of Doyle, the scene is far more beautiful. So beautiful that I caught myself pausing the player to gaze at the composition. I did the same when Lone Man finds his final clue in the band of a dead women laying in his bed.
While I can't for certain deduce why both critics and fans seemed to overlook Limits, I would like to offer a theory. Following the success of Broken Flowers, which starred Bill Murray (hot off his Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic buzz), Jarmusch's place in cinema changed. For the first 28 years of his storied career he'd been an auteur to watch, study and learn from. He was a mystery so much so that no one ever knew what to expect from him. Along with the heightened profile that both Broken Flowers and Coffee and Cigarettes gave him, Jarmusch was, for the first time, met with expectations. Knowing how smart the man is (not to mention how well he knows his trade), one would have to think that he'd consider this.
So, to me, the fact that Jarmusch made such an uncompromising film regardless of the heavy burden of critical expectations should be celebrated. And I'd bet that, someday, when critics are going back over the man's filmography, it will be.
And, for the most part, that's the end of my review. But I do feel it necessary to give my theory on what the film is about. So don't read any further unless you've either seen the film or don't mind having some of the fun spoiled.
My Theory (Spoiler Alert!): Lone Man is a highly regarded, incredibly secretive hitman hired by someone to take out a heavily guarded man who is also a formerly high ranking politician from the United States. Through a number of clues - and by meeting a long series of very abstractly speaking informants - Lone Man finds the politician's hideout - a bunker in the middle of nowhere in an unidentified country. Lone Man makes his way into the former politician's top secret room (soundproof, natch) and waits for him there. Once the man shows up, Lone Man calmly kills him without anyone hearing a peep, then goes to a museum and sits in front of a strange piece of art that is meant to represent cleansing and clarity. It's beautiful.
Who plays the ex-politician? Bill Murray, of course. Who do I think the ex-politican is supposed to be? Dick Cheney, of course. Not just because the way they style Murray, but because of his temper and mannerisms. And the title, too, seems to make sense. Also, didn't Dick Cheney really buy some land in some far off country and build a heavily guarded hideout? That's what I heard. And, again, this is my version of Jim Jarmusch's movie.
So, if you're the kind of person who needs a set story and can't find one of your own, feel free to borrow mine. But, for the record, I like how ambiguous Jarmusch keeps the details.