The Limits of Control is a lesser known thriller from 2009 which stars a slew of familiar and unfamiliar faces alike. This film, directed by Jim Jarmusch, stars Isaach de Bankolé as Lone Man. This character is… exactly what his title states. He is a hitman loner who is on a job in the middle of Madrid and comes into contact with several philosophical characters along the way. Each of these characters, including the Blonde (Tilda Swinton) and Guitar (John Hurt), give the Lone Man a piece to his puzzle in the form of philosophical questions and a matchbox with hidden symbols inside.
This film is a slow burn for sure, however, something about it is both intriguing and just cool to view. The attention to the cinematography is astounding. The photography has a stylized, smooth polish to it that makes the city life pop onto the screen. A shaking camera effect is only utilized to bring out the fast-paced nature of city streets, and an incredible score and soundtrack adds a palpable hipness to the proceedings.
Additionally, while each mysterious character he meets along the way has something interesting to say, there is practically no dialogue outside these sparse encounters, especially from the protagonist. Most of his limited dialogue comes during his climactic face-off with the American, played by Bill Murray, whom he had worked the whole film to get towards. Nevertheless, the film does utilize neat tricks and philosophical ideas to tell a conventional story of an assassin, but in a unique way.
The Audience’s Ignorance
Most of the Lone Man’s intentions and specific details about his backstory are withheld from the audience. All we know is that he is a reserved man who is dedicated to his job and does backwards deals to get what he needs to be done. The mysteries that unfold around him are internalized behind his stoic eyes. The audience is not clued in on any specific detail about his life or what he is actually doing. Why is he getting these matchboxes from strangers? Why are these strangers giving him such philosophical pieces of dialogue, and how do they progress his story? While the Lone Man’s story marches forward, the audience’s perspective remains stagnant.
The mystery of The Limits of Control unfolds in front of the audience without telling the audience what’s going on; this keeps the film hypnotic, but allows viewers to piece it together in hindsight. The main character’s job is under such secrecy that the viewer is completely unaware of what is happening. On one hand, it shows how good he is at his job. But on the other hand, it does make the story a bit difficult to follow, meaning that you have to surrender to the extremely cool vibe and forget about traditional plot mechanics.
Nevertheless, there are enormous pieces of plot detail that just don’t get explained throughout the near two-hour runtime. In a film of this length, seeing the Lone Man just walk from place to place could seem a bit boring, and if that’s all it was, it probably would be. However, those sporadic pieces of dialogue that he has with each traveling red herring aids in the story’s intrigue, and helps the viewer understand that this is a philosophical mission.
Dreams and Film
In perhaps one of the highest moments of intrigue in the film, Tilda Swinton’s character, Blonde, explains the beauty of film. She is enamored by the art of cinema, which loosely connects to the Lone Man’s interest in art in general. Throughout the film, he is seen in an art gallery admiring the pieces from various angles. This does not seem to serve much purpose in the film. However, it might be the film’s ultimate metaphor.
Connecting back to Blonde, she tells the Lone Man about her philosophy of film, which can be summed up by one quote:
“The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you really had.”
The film features an array of strange sequences that seem out of place, much like the art gallery sequence and many of the Lone Man’s slow strolls through cities. It feels hypnotic and dream-like. There is a blurred line drawn between dreams and film. They both imprint themselves within the mind of the viewer. Bits and pieces seem sporadic and sometimes out of place. However, the overall theme of the story is what prevails. This is why some of the earliest film theorist, such as André Bazin, wrote about film as ‘oneiric,’ an art of dreams.
The Limits of Control Is About Art
The Limits of Control focuses on so-called arbitrary realities, and it seems to play the audience, confusing what is real and what is not, and ultimately proving that the difference doesn’t matter. A dream is real; it exists, even if its contents may be fictitious. The film, like dreams, is a fiction that’s real, and celebrates fiction and art as such. As one character says, “For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.” Fictional art can mean more than real life.
Until the Lone Man’s ultimate climactic showdown with Bill Murray (who is hid out in a sort of military compound, and who has been compared to both a Hollywood executive and Donald Rumsfeld), we have no idea where the film is even taking us. The Lone Man’s purpose to eliminate Bill Murray’s character, and we realize that ‘the American’ represents the Hollywood industrial complex, the military, or any other system which uses force and money to impose its own sense of order. The Limits of Control, then, could be about art and its liberation.
Perhaps the story’s purpose is to let us live within the moment and surrender ourselves to art, appreciating the mesmerizing aesthetic and Jarmusch’s curation of art, philosophy, and ideas. As Unspoken Cinema writes, “The Limits of Control is an unabashed celebration of art, of its eccentricities and of losing oneself in it. The film is loaded with conversations about paintings, music, dance, films and books.” It invites you to lose yourself in it. Maybe the Lone Man is living within another reality (a film is literally another reality, after all) and we’re invited to live there, too.
In the end, the film is a slow burn. There are no answers to many of the questions asked throughout the entire runtime. Characters come and go and artifacts seem to just serve as red herrings with, to some, seemingly no meaning. But as dreams come and go, so do the elements of The Limits of Control. The film could be a motion picture realization of a dream and its unpredictability. It’s intriguing, strange, and unnatural, but we are forced to take witness to its unusual nature, and surrender control to its artistry.