Monday, 14 November 2011

The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (2009) was almost unanimously panned by film critics. Roger Ebert gave it all of half a star. So why, you may ask, did I feel that it was worth two hours of my time? I’m so glad you asked.

The Limits of Control was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, who happens to be one of the world’s most insane, I mean ‘original’, filmmakers. Whenever I see a Jarmusch film, I think of Wim Wenders, another one of our most ‘original’ filmmakers. Not surprisingly, Jarmusch and Wenders have worked together. But my point is that some of us are attracted to ‘original’ films, films that are unlike anything else out there, films that are always trying to make you think, films that you know are attempting to communicate an important message even if you’re not sure what it is. Many critics find these ‘original’ films pretentious, self-absorbed, and even deluded. Both Jarmusch and Wenders have made films that the critics loved (Stranger than Paradise and Broken Flowers for Jarmusch; Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas for Wenders) but most of their films get a mediocre reception.

Personally, I love these guys, considering even their worst films well worth watching and almost always liking their films more than the critics. That is why I took a chance on The Limits of Control. I was not disappointed.

The Limits of Control is a thriller with almost no action, a drama with almost no dialogue. It gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘slow-moving’. It’s not exactly like watching paint dry but it is like a watching a painting. It’s plot is so minimalist that it could be filmed in twelve minutes instead of 112 minutes. The same things happen over and over again. Only the faces change. On the surface, The Limits of Control is about a man on a secret mission in Spain. We don’t know what or why. We know only that he keeps meeting people who give him one more piece of the puzzle.

Under the surface, however, we know (at least we hope) that The Limits of Control is not about a cold unnamed spy (who says almost nothing and whose expression rarely changes) trying to save the world. It’s about an existential journey of discovery. The lone spy likes to visit art galleries to look at paintings and some of the fellow ‘spies’ he meets represent art (the very paintings he is looking at) in some way. One represents science. The mysterious enemy represents a corporate structure which has lost interest in the arts and sciences and in creative thought of any kind and sees the world as being only about the acquisition of capital. That’s my interpretation, anyway, but I have not had it confirmed.

Perhaps The Limits of Control captured my attention because during the last few days I just happened to be thinking about how people who pursue careers in the fine arts (or any creative or thoughtful work) are not respected like those who go into business or computer technology. Jarmusch, like me, does not believe in chance, fate or coincidences, so I do not believe that I chose to watch this film by mere chance. Rather, I believe that its message was one of my own fellow ‘spies’ passing along information for my journey of discovery.

Perhaps you’re thinking that the reason I like Jarmusch’s films is because I am as insane as he is. Perhaps. Jarmusch’s motto is: “It’s hard to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going.” When he makes a film, he doesn’t know where he’s going. And he enjoys being ‘lost.’ “I feel free when I’m lost,” he says. His films, like those of Wenders, certainly reflect this sense of being lost and looking for freedom on the way to something or someone or somewhere. I ramble because I too feel lost when I watch films like this. Watching The Limits of Control was like looking at a gorgeous surreal painting (one which contains occasional movement) for two hours while also looking deeper and deeper into oneself. It’s mesmerizing.

BTW, the people our lone spy, played stoically enough by Isaach De Bankole, meets on his journey include Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Bill Murray, among others. The Limits of Control gets a mug up from me, though I can’t decide how many stars it’s worth (let’s say *** just to be safe). If looking at a painting (however beautiful) for two hours is not your idea of a good time, you may want to avoid this one. At the least, you should read one of the many scathing critiques before taking the plunge.


  1. Also saw this one a long while ago. Intriguing, but that's about the only feeling I was left with. Maybe I could say more (after reading the connection with The Way) that the feeling of being led in that way could have led to a really novel outcome but it just didn't come together for me. So no mug up on this one - **

  2. I love this film and I recently saw Brother from another planet (John Sayles). I have not heard anybody conclude or even insinuate that Limit of Control is basically Brother from another planet in Europe they both even share the "How Did you get in here" line? Wonder if anybody else noticed this or maybe Brother isn't a wide spread enough film? So If you like this movie and have not seen Brother from another planet see it you will love it possible even more!