There's really no point in rating Jim Jarmusch's new film, The Limits of Control. A beguiling and gorgeous movie, it defies contemporary filmmaking conventions, leaving its meanings to be interpreted by each viewer. It's a crime thriller without crime or thrills, the sort of movie that could inspire debate or somnambulism, depending upon who's watching it. And that, says Jarmusch, is the idea.
“I'm hesitant, when people ask me what something means or how to interpret that,” he tells CityBeat. “It's about how any one person looks at something or receives something in the world. That's as varied as there are people on the world, so the reactions to the film are, I hope, accordingly varied.”
Yeah, that's out there, but so is the movie, which stars Isaach De Bankolé as an unnamed lone man sent to do an unnamed job by unnamed men that requires both imagination and strict adherence to detail. Once he receives his instructions, he's contacted by different unnamed operatives like Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, all of whom pass him codes on paper and verbally, the meanings of which are never explained. What is his mission? Is he a reflection of society or a blank canvas for the ideas and viewpoints that are presented to him? What does it all mean? And when we finally see the outcome of his adventures—if they can be called that—what has been accomplished?
Jarmusch doesn't offer easy answers. He says he doesn't consider The Limits of Control a difficult intellectual exercise. “I hope that it's a kind of entertaining trip,” he says. “But there are certain expectations that aren't going to be fulfilled if you're expecting an action film or a dramatic film with a lot of emotional upheaval. It's not about that. The plot is secondary. But there is a plot. It is a story. It's not a non-narrative film.”
If that sounds torturous to you, it probably will be. The movie is beautiful to look at but is also obtusely challenging. It feels like puzzle pieces without a box—they fit together, but you don't have a specific picture you're trying to recreate. It hearkens back to films from directors like Michael Antonioni or Jacques Rivette. The movie doesn't wear its themes and ideas on its sleeve. In some ways, whether or not you like the movie is beside the point, because the point is to stimulate thought. And Jarmusch believes that if he's succeeded in doing that, if he's made his audience consider things they don't normally consider, then he's found success.
“I think that the state of the world is—and this might be my optimistic side—that it is at a cusp of a kind of apocalypse of thought,” he says. “All of these models for things that we've been told are just the way it is are crumbling. I mean, science, energy and the fragile ecosystem that is the planet, the economic system which is totally archaic and ridiculous, how we value things, our way of transportation. All of these things have to be rethought, because they are all a house of cards. They are basically bankrupt.”
It isn't much of a stretch to think Jarmusch sees modern film conventions in exactly the same light.
“We have two choices,” he says. “Either we rethink them and survive as living beings on this planet, or we just follow the sheep into the sea because certain people say, ‘Well, that's just the way the world is.'”
And that's what—if I had to guess—The Limits of Control is actually about. Jarmusch can't control what you think or feel about his work.
“I know it's a weird film,” he says. “I just think there is a need for all types of film, so I tried to make one that wasn't quite so predictable.”