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The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
“Use your imagination,” Jarmusch’s solemn hitman (Isaach De Bankole) is told repeatedly throughout the film. As he meets a procession of eccentric contacts, each taking him closer to his ultimate target while expounding on esoterica, he does just that. Through a regimented routine, eschewing non-intellectual gratification and refusing to expend excess energy, he slowly bends the world to his will. As Jarmusch focuses on minute details of his nameless protagonist’s process toward some zen ideal, posture becomes prose and form becomes function. As the lone killer emerges as an aesthetic being, his mission emerges as the director’s mission statement.
Jarmusch strikes a contemplative tone, but serves up precious little to contemplate. The effect is a film that feels too fussy to feel as cool as one suspects it’s meant to be. The star cameos are self-conscious at best and distracting at worst. The meticulously controlled mise-en-scene is more stifling than liberating. The movie has a clear, clean design, and never becomes dull, despite its intentional repetitiveness, but it is qualified art. This is problematic, as Jarmusch’s central thesis attempts to argue for the power of art and the mind over rationality and reality.
There’s a big difference between transcendent art and art that merely holds one’s attention. The stylistic cityscapes of Olivier Assayas’ recent thriller Boarding Gate are far more hypnotic than what Jarmusch conjures here. Even more perturbing is the fact that in Assayas’ film manages to feel more formally experimental than this while still offering emotional hooks. In that film, Asia Argento’s plight, and eventual salvation, might have made for a more conventional narrative trajectory than the droning rhythmic pulse that Limits offers, but that movie gave viewers a journey that was infinitely more satisfying, thought-provoking, and in touch with the world than this lone killer’s. The tidbits of deadpan comedy or philosophical noodling that Jarmusch ekes out here only barely seem to sustain so much forced formalism.