By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2009)
The LBJ look: Bill Murray in The Limits of Control.
Any one who has followed director Jim Jarmusch career will tell you there are certain things you can always expect in his films. Or perhaps it’s more about the things not to expect. Like car chases. Special effects. Flash-cut editing. Snappy dialog. A pulse-pounding music soundtrack. Narrative structure. Pacing.
Not that there is anything wrong with utilizing any or all of the above in order to entertain an audience, but if those are the kinds of things you primarily look for when you go to the movies, it would behoove you to steer clear of anything on the marquee labeled as “a film by Jim Jarmusch”. Rest assured that you will find none of the above and even less in his latest offering, The Limits of Control.
Jarmusch has decided to take another stab at the “existential hit man” genre (which he first explored in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai). Here, he concocts something best described as The Day of the Jackal meets Black Orpheus. Isaach De Bankole is a killer-for-hire. Referred to in the credits simply as Lone Man, this is an assassin who at first glance mostly appears to kill time.
After receiving his cryptic assignment, he sets off via train, plane and automobile through the Spanish countryside, with a stop in Madrid. Along the way, the taciturn Lone Man meets up with an assortment of oddballs, with whom he trades matchboxes (don’t ask).
Each of these exchanges is really a setup for a cameo-length monologue about Art, Love, Life, the Universe and Everything by guest stars like John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal (whose characters sport archetypal names like Guitar, Blonde and Mexican). As each contact pontificates on a pet topic, De Bankole sits impassively, sipping a double espresso, which he always demands to be served in two cups (the film’s running joke).
The coffee quirk is the least of Lone Man’s OCD-type eccentricities. When he is on a “job”, he suffers absolutely no distractions…even sleep. He doesn’t seem to require much sustenance either, aside from those double espressos. He can’t even be bothered to take up an offer for a little recreational sex with the alluring Paz De La Huerta (what is he, nuts?!) who, true to her character’s name (Nude) spends all her screen time wearing naught but a pair of glasses.
The Big Mystery, of course, is Who’s Gonna Die, and Why-but we are not let in on that little secret until the end . OK, you’re thinking at this point, we don’t know who he is chasing, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone chasing him, so where’s the dramatic tension?
Well, dramatic tension or traditional narrative devices have never been a driving force in any of Jarmusch’s films (as I pre-qualified at the outset). It’s always about the characters, and Jarmusch’s wry, deadpan observance regarding the human comedy. In Jarmusch’s universe, the story doesn’t happen to the people, the people happen upon the story; and depending on how receptive you are to that concept on that particular day, you’re either going to hail it as a work of genius or dismiss it as an interminable, pointless snooze fest.
It so happened I was in a receptive mood that day, and I found a lot to like about The Limits of Control. In purely cinematic terms, it’s one of his best films to date. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the most out of the inherently photogenic Spanish locales and deftly instills the film with an “acid noir” feel. Jarmusch has put together a greatsoundtrack, from flamenco, ambient, psychedelic, to jazz and classical. I think I’ve even figured out what this film is “about”. Or maybe Jarmusch is just fucking with me. For the eleventh time.
I love the 80s: Terrence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit.
As the credits were rolling for The Limits of Control, something nagged at me. It strongly reminded of another film but I couldn’t quite place it. As I was racking my brain, I thought “Now, there can’t be that many other existential hit man movies, filmed in Spain, which also feature….John Hurt. That’s it! It was so obvious that I wasn’t able to see it right away. One of my favorite Brit-noirs , The Hit, is an existential hit man movie, filmed in Spain and features John Hurt.
Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback of sorts for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a Capella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” (which has never sounded so menacing, especially when it is sung by a group of Cockney thugs who look like they were on loan from the cast of The Long Good Friday). The oddly serene Willie doesn’t appear fazed.
Flash-forward a number of years, and we learn that Willie has relocated to Spain, where he leads a somewhat comfortable existence (although his ever-present bodyguard would seem to be an indicator that he probably still sleeps with one eye open). When the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”, and Willie is abducted by freelancing locals and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his hotheaded young “apprentice” (Tim Roth), he accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm (much to the chagrin of his captors).
What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in ever-escalating mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic gets even more interesting when circumstances lead to taking on an additional hostage (Laura del Sol). Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation. Roth (in his film debut) is edgy, explosive and sometimes quite funny.
While this is essentially a grim drama, and exactly not a “funny ha-ha” romp; there are black comedy underpinnings that become more apparent upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia (Eric Clapton plays the opening). Well worth rediscovering, especially since it has (finally!) been given the deluxe Criterion Collection remastering treatment (the previously available DVD was a badly transferred pan and scan).