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The Limits of Control

Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Gael Garcia Bernal star in this enigmatic film

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Coffee for two: Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankol
  • Coffee for two: Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankol

Isaach De Bankolé speaks his first line of dialogue in The Limits of Control about 20 minutes into the film, and then it's only to tell the waiter at a Spanish café that he wants two espressos in two separate cups. The waiter gets it wrong, so he's forced to speak again.

Over and over his character, whose name we never learn, places this order, in town after town, as he peregrinates through the movie's languid plot, which has something to do with a diamond heist. He meets many contacts, and each one greets him by saying, in Spanish, "You don't speak Spanish, right," to which he answers "No," or just shakes his head.

This becomes the film's running gag (if you will), and we never do learn why he orders his espressos that way. Each contact he meets gives him a matchbox, and inside each is a piece of paper with numbers on it. He reads them, then eats the paper, washing it down with espresso.

In films like Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Broken Flower, Jim Jarmusch has inched closer and closer to a cinema of, if not reality, then at least humanity. He does what he wants, and he doesn't seem to care what people think of his work, nor whether they go to see it. You can't say that about many artists in the cinema these days, nor could you ever, really.

The Limits of Control is a step -- well, sideways. You can try to figure out what De Bankolé and his cohorts are up to, but why bother: Jarmusch has made an essay more than a drama, so he's mostly concerned with what people say, not with what they do. And there's plenty here to cogitate, especially about the nature of art, cinema and reality, although Jarmusch's spare dialogue still manages to bullet (the printed kind: nobody fires a gun in the film) all of its discussion points.

The cohorts are interestingly cast. Tilda Swinton looks luscious with straight white hair and crimson lipstick. She's a cinema buff who muses on The Lady From Shanghai, which "made no sense," and she says, "I like films where people just sit there, not saying anything." (See what I mean?) John Hurt ponders the etymological and cultural history of bohemianism; Gael Garcia Bernal tells stories about "his village"; and at the end, the "Americano" who hovers over the film in a helicopter turns out to be a wonderfully ferocious Bill Murray as a gangster who can't understand how De Bankolé got into his super-secure soundproof inter sanctum. "I used my imagination," he explains, underscoring (yet again) the central theme of what's real and what's not.

The film's musical score, by Boris, twangs, moans, wafts and quietly wells up, and Jarmusch's confident direction photographs everything in a style of watchful realism. "Among us," someone tells De Bankolé, "there are people who are not among us." He replies, "I'm among no one," making him the ideal alter ego for his creator.

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