- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

We all want explanations — for our own actions, for those of others, for the meaning of life itself. We certainly want them in our movies. But what if they’re not so easy to find?

To an existentialist, Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control” might seem an especially realistic film. In following the very conscious proceedings of one man on a mission, the movie illustrates how humans define themselves through their actions, and create their own meaning, partly by asking the viewer to do the same.

Characters are listed in the credits as abstractions, not people with names, emphasizing how little we know of other people, even as we spend a couple hours watching them. French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankole is the central character, the Lone Man, who is given his assignment at the airport by a Creole and his French translator, a man who will translate the easily understood word “good,” but who balks at rendering the Creole’s cryptic proverbs.

The Lone Man flies to Madrid to await further instructions, which come in coded messages delivered in matchboxes by an impressive parade of talented actors — John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, to name a few. Adding to the thriller’s sense of mystery, the Lone Man doesn’t talk much. He reads the message, then swallows it, washed down by one of the two espressos he always orders in separate cups.

He might not have much to say, but those with whom he rendezvous do. They always begin by asking if he’s interested in something — music, art, film, science, hallucinations — and despite his silence, proceed to discourse a little on their chosen subject. We know he’s interested in most of these things, though, because we’ve seen it. He looks at one painting during each visit to the museum, paintings we’ll soon see are related to his story. He listens to Schubert’s String Quintet.

The visual and the aural are what make this film such a delight to watch, as Mr. Jarmusch is a metafilmmaker who delights in subverting film’s narrative conventions and genre expectations.

Miss Swinton’s character has the most to say about the medium, and she tells the Lone Man, “Sometimes I like in films when people just sit there, not saying anything.” And then they do.

Mr. De Bankole, a frequent collaborator of the filmmaker, is thus the perfect muse. His strong face, with its chiseled cheekbones, provides plenty of interest even when he doesn’t say a thing.

“The Limits of Control” might seem like a series of random images and discussions, but everything eventually seems essential. It’s all tied together — very loosely — when Bill Murray finally makes his appearance toward the end. There is a deliberateness, both to Mr. De Bankole and to this film, that make it utterly gripping and, yes, satisfying — as long as you’re not one of those people who expects to understand the motivations of another human being.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Limits of Control”

RATING: R (graphic nudity and some language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: thelimitsofcontrol.com

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