An examination of Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Limits of Control’

The Limits of Control (2009)

If you are seeking any clue as to what Jim Jarmusch is really trying to do with The Limits of Control, you might find it in a line spoken by Tilda Swinton’s character, simply called ‘Blonde’. At mid-point in the film, she tells Isaach De Bankolé’s introverted hitman (who is referred to only as The Lone Man): “Sometimes I like films where people sit around and don’t say anything.” Perhaps Jarmusch wanted to do the same thing here. The Blonde seems to be not interested in talking about anything else other than movie trivia.

She also asks him: “Have you seen Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai? It doesn’t make any sense.” Jarmusch’s film too, may not make any sense. And this is precisely the reason why it baffled movie audiences and critics when it first came out. This is Jarmusch doing a Michelangelo Antonioni film. The Lone Man loves taking strolls around the city (Spain) and frequents the local art gallery often. Every time he goes to a cafe, he orders “two espressos in separate cups”.  Messages are passed through paper bits concealed in matchboxes. Certain lines and situations are repeated again and again.

More than twice The Lone Man is asked whether he speaks Spanish and the reply is always the same: “No”. Also, philosophical gibberish is exchanged between several characters on few occasions. At one point, he stares curiously at the painting of a nude woman for a while and later encounters a nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) in his hotel room. He tells her he isn’t interested in sex, not while he is working. She asks him how he manages it and there is no response. He performs Tai Chi a lot. His face is unusually calm, even when he is killing somebody.

Oh and speaking of killing somebody, this is the first time I’m seeing a hitman film where there are more scenes of introspection than there are of killing. Am I complaining? No. It’s as if his presence alone is narrating a hundred stories. I found this film to be a fascinating exercise. Jarmusch, as usual, doesn’t seem to have given much thought to whether people are going to accept his film or not. This is another one of his eccentric attempts. What’s he trying to say here? I’m not so sure. But I found so much to admire here: Jarmusch’s audacity for one and Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography. Doyle treats every frame as if it were a portrait.

The Lone Man looks at some paintings and takes away something from them. Then he goes out and treats everything on the street as if it were a painting. We look at him looking at a painting (or some famous landmark) and we see a portrait – of a ruminating hitman. That’s what the film is – a portrait. Nothing wrong with that. I found its meditative quality and striking color palette immensely soothing. I didn’t care whether he was going to pull out a gun or kill somebody any minute.  I found comfort in the numerous quiet moments that he enjoys. As another character in the film puts it: Everything is subjective.


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