Some months ago, I attended a Project Film School screening in which a wonderfully articulate (and spectacularly dressed, I’ll never forget his specs/beard/overalls) film professor opened the evening by going around a circle of two dozen audience members and having each person answer this question: “Which film would you need to have directed in order to die happy?” Which I found to be a terrific (if imposing) question. My answer was Jim Jarmusch‘s Down by Law.*
I am a huge fan of Jarmusch. I love the balanced, meditative control that he exercises and that his films are, in essence, stories that already exist. I remember arriving at my response fairly quickly in part because I felt that Down by Law set a high water mark for Jarmusch that only some of his later films hedged at, but never quite exceeded. His last film, Broken Flowers, left a lot of devotees with a sense of betrayal that he would try for a Wes Anderson audience. The first time I saw Broken Flowers, I thought it was terrific, but on second go I was flatly disappointed and found myself really frustrated by Bill Murray’s by-the-books character.**
With all of this in mind, I was hesitant to see The Limits of Control. Thankfully, though, it’s a refreshingly brave return to what Jarmusch does best, and then some. To be succinct, Limits is terrifically ambitious; even compared to his previous work, it’s probably the most ethereal. Categorically, Limits follows in the tradition of a minimalist neo-noir, something like Jean-Pierre Melville‘s Le Samouraï. So rather than employ a causal plot puzzle, the film instead is about the evocation of the gestures and mood of a crime drama. In true Jarmusch fashion, there is very little in the way of events. Familiar signatures are all in place; there is a methodical, practiced repetition to the film’s movement and cadence. What sets Limits apart, however, is that it assumes the Lone Man narrative, but occupies this formulation not so much to tell a story, but more to query the modes of this narrative in terms of perception, time, and states of dream and reality.
Predictably, cinematography and music were outstanding. Camera was handled by Christopher Doyle, who did a phenomenal job. Just look at those screenshots! The music was done exclusively by Boris with most of the tracks favoring a deep MBV/Loveless warble (which was in spontaneous concert with the F train that passes right below the floorboards of Angelika). Also, the casting is fantastic – Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, among others. I was also really excited and impressed with Isaach De Bankolé’s performance. Each of the characters has a certain quality of being of another world, but their performances are really tethered to Bankolé, who, largely without words, sets the tone for their exchanges. Also, dude was born to wear sharkskin.
*Actually, if I were to answer the question now, it would probably be Bergman’s Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring).
**Alright, fine, Bill Murray has done some great stuff in the past ten years. The problem, though, is that he is only terrific at playing the same character. The choice to cast BM usually means that there will be no challenge. Interestingly, BM actually has a small part in Limits. And it was the worst part.