Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2009

Plot, deconstructed

Jarmusch strips the hitman thriller bare, but leaves us with nothing

The Limits of Control
Focus Features
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Isaach De Bankole, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, Luis Tosar, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bill Murray
Rated R / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

The noise is gone. The distractions are few. The clumsy subplots have been removed, along with all the clever workings of style, the character nuance, the labyrinths of plot, the romance, the tension.

This is how Jim Jarmusch does a Hitman Movie - he strips it of all its substance and reveals only the artifice. Or, perhaps he's arguing that substance so often is the artifice?

This is a movie completely broken down to its component parts. It is "about" an unnamed hitman (Isaach De Bankole) and plays out like a metaphysical revenge fantasy gutted of all detail. We see essentially the same exact scene over and over and over - he meets another unnamed person who strikes up a virtually identical "conversation" as the last, with only the nouns (art, film, music, science) replaced. They exchange matchboxes. The note inside the box the Lone Man receives always contains an unintelligible code, and he always swallows it.

The man's lifestyle is as austere as possible - no sex, no guns, no mobile phones, hardly any talking and one suitcase's worth of clothes. From time to time he visits the art gallery, waits until he finds inspiration (or understanding?) from a particular painting, then leaves. The paintings, the characters he meets and the objects they possess all seem to be intertwined, but of course only in an artificial way.

What we realize when observing this relentless monotony is that these characters are following all the same steps you'd find in a standard mystery. Characters exchange information, the plot moves forward - it doesn't matter what the information is, only that it has been exchanged.

In between, our hero might have a dalliance with a woman, meet people, engage in conversation, spend a night in the city - all such scenes are present in The Limits of Control, but reduced to empty surface value and overt symbolism. It's all there to move things from one scene to the next. Any movie with a similar plot goes through all the same motions to get to the same place; the rest is just filler, right? This movie is like an X-ray of cinematic structure. Those other movies just happen to be more entertaining than this one.

Jarmusch has done so much on a minimal scale that perhaps this movie shouldn't come as a surprise. His style has always been distinctive but simple, utilizing minimal camerawork, minimal budgets and even minimal color (several of his best films were shot in black and white). Perhaps, with this one, he was testing the limits of his own control as a filmmaker. How much could he strip this story down and get away with it? All the way to the bone?

Seen as a Brechtian gesture, The Limits of Control can be appreciated as an experiment. But it's hard to appreciate it as anything else. The style of the film wears off once we see what it's doing. There are references and hints that conjure further interpretations that might theoretically be worth exploring - but then again, since Jarmusch is giving us so little, what obligation do we have to dig into any of it?

Especially since the audience is ultimately subjected to some rather clumsy political symbolism at the end that may offer an alternate (and decidedly less interesting) window into the movie's ideas.

Maybe I'd like to decipher the exact relationship between the artwork we see in the film and the characters the Lone Man encounters. Maybe I'd like to wonder about the relationship between imagination and reality. Maybe I'd like to examine De Bankole's face and keep trying to decide whether he's telling us that everything is all part of the plan, or that it's all serendipitous. Right now, I'm torn.

But when it comes down to it, Jarmusch has done such a thorough job stripping the film of any sense of wonder or imagination, it's pretty hard to give it much thought at all. After all, he's spent the last two hours showing us exactly how artificial his movie is. Consider the lesson learned.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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