Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (Focus Features) earns an adjective that I don’t throw around lightly: pretentious. That word tends to get subbed in when the speaker doesn’t care to do the work of understanding the movie in question. But I gave The Limits of Control my patient attention for 118 minutes, entering into its rhythm (glacial), listening to its soundtrack (gorgeous), and pondering its dialogue (sparse). I considered Jarmusch’s careerlong penchant for the existential travelogue (from Stranger Than Paradise to Dead Man to Broken Flowers) and tried to grasp how this latest installment fit into the genre. Only then did I allow myself to decide that this beautifully shot and painstakingly constructed film is a self-indulgent bucket of hogwash.
An unnamed man (Isaach de Bankolé) is sent on a mission to Spain that has something to do with the exchange of diamonds in matchboxes. The seedy-looking individual who charges him with this task defines the contours of the job somewhat broadly: “Reality is arbitrary.” For the rest of the film, de Bankolé travels the Spanish countryside, from Madrid to Seville and back to Madrid again. In each new town, he gives a matchbox of diamonds to his contact and is given a note directing him to his next destination. There’s a formalist sameness to these encounters: de Bankolé always orders two espressos in separate cups, a quirk that is made much of for no discernible reason. Each desultory conversation (with the likes of Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael Garcìa Bernal) begins with the question, “¿Usted no habla español, verdad?”, followed by a string of non sequiturs and an exchange of matchbox for note (which de Bankolé reads and then eats).
Returning to his hotel one night, he discovers a sexy Spanish girl (Paz de la Huerta) lounging on his bed wearing nothing but a transparent raincoat. Because the unnamed man, an ascetic tai chi practitioner with no apparent needs or desires, never has sex on the job, he and the girl listen to Schubert’s lovely Quintet in C together and then fall asleep. Eventually, one of his contacts, a Middle Eastern woman (Hiam Abbass), drives the man to a remote compound in the desert, where Bill Murray, playing a corporate gangster of some sort, engages him in a discussion about idealism and pragmatism before getting a demonstration of just how brutally pragmatist the unnamed man can be.
Isaach de Bankolé is a Jarmusch favorite who also appeared in Casino Royale and in Lars von Trier’s Manderlay. He has the carved, iconic features of an Easter Island statue and, at least in this role, about the same dynamic range. His character’s impassivity is no doubt meant to evoke the mystique of classic tough guys like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood. But I’ve never gone for that brand of mystique, and the unnamed man’s smug stoicism made me want to give him an unnamed sock in the jaw.
The geographic and architectural beauty of Spain provides the only respite from the hip tedium. Seville, with its warm ochre light and ravishing Moorish tile work, gets the kind of loving treatment (from cinematographer Christopher Doyle) that Barcelona did last year in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Allen’s movie saw Spain as a place foreigners go to discover love, pleasure, and beauty; Jarmusch’s joyless protagonist seems insensible to all three. But both films leave you thinking the same thing: Wow, I really need to get to Spain as soon as humanly possible. In the case of The Limits of Control, don’t bother waiting till the movie’s over.