It was about three years ago when, emerging from a press screening of Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, a good friend said to me, "You just can't argue with Almodóvar," referring to the idiosyncratic style that the great Spanish director has held steady for nearly three decades now. It didn't matter that Volver was, arguably, one of the director's more languid entries in terms of story, thematic content, and ambition. It simply mattered that it was undeniably Almodóvar.
The Limits of Control, the 11th feature by the New York-born auteur Jim Jarmusch, is another work that is inarguably stamped by its director's idiosyncrasies and, like Volver, there have been several critics who have questioned if its artistic success is not so much a result of it being a Jarmusch film rather than simply a good film. It emits a dark-shade cool, as befits any Jarmusch joint, and it features several of the director's usual performers, including the Ivorian-born actor Isaach De Bankolé in the lead. Article continues below
Its tuned similarities, however, are not in the service of innocuous style. Described by Jarmusch as something like Point Blank reimagined by Jacques Rivette, The Limits of Control follows a hitman (Bankolé) as he finds himself following several things: a password, two matchboxes, a black helicopter, and any small café that will serve him two espressos in separate cups. His life is dictated by his assignment, which has something to do with following the bread or the guitar case and an inability to speak Spanish. When a woman (Paz de la Huerta) shows up naked in his room with a pair of glasses and a gun, their only form of copulation involves her laying her head against his chest.
More than any of his films to date, with the arguable exception of the Gotham nocturne of Ghost Dog, Limits is an unwaveringly rhythmic film, playing on subtle variations of itself at any given time as the hitman traverses Spanish cities and towns in search of his nameless objective. He changes his suit whenever arriving at a new station and reminiscently converses with a rogues' gallery of misfits, played by a surpassingly hip cast including John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Tilda Swinton, Hiam Abbass, and, naturally, Bill Murray. The film is shot by the brilliant Christopher Doyle who here uses reds, oranges, and frames within frames to both entice and deceive the viewer, if not the hitman himself.
The reggae and afro-beat that elevated the hip agenda of Jarmusch's Broken Flowers is replaced here by the swirling drone of Japanese psych-metal outfit Boris, and the soundscapes, no less compelling than those on their throttling 2006 opus Pink, seem to echo in the spiral hallways and angular modernity of Jarmusch's Spain. Above all, Limits is a film for lovers of film itself, complete with The Lady from Shanghai references. Set inside a lone-gunman thriller, the hitman becomes a proxy not only for the viewer but for the director himself, wandering and meditating in the beauty of small-town Spain. The danger is defused, but the endless curiosity of what's around the corner permeates.