A man with no name sits down at an outdoor cafe and orders two espressos in separate cups. A flock of birds gently take flight. A helicopter briefly whirls overhead. The man sips espresso. Silence. Calm.
A man with no name sits down at an outdoor cafe and orders two espressos in separate cups. A flock of birds gently take flight. A helicopter briefly whirls overhead. The man sips espresso. Silence. Calm. He is approached by another person, who sits down. The other person says "You don't speak Spanish, right?" The other person says something more, in Spanish or in another language. The man removes a matchbox from his pocket. The other person places a matchbox with the same design, but a different color, on the table. The matchboxes are exchanged. The other person says something more, and leaves. The man opens the newly-exchanged matchbox, takes out a tiny piece of paper, unfolds it, reads the coded, hand-written message on it, puts it in his mouth, and swallows it along with another sip of espresso.
A man with no name sits down at an outdoor cafe ...
So goes Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, the perfect summer movie for people who prefer museums to amusement parks. Wearing a multitude of enigmas on its well-coifed sleeve, the film is cool, dark, mysterious, and altogether refreshing. Isaach De Bankolé plays The Man With No Name (actually identified as "Lone Man" in the credits), and if that moniker calls forth memories of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, so much the better, though Lone Man's espressos, matchboxes, and chastity place him firmly within the realm of post-modern masculinity.
Lone Man is on a mission. The purpose is not made immediately clear. He arrives in Barcelona, Spain and begins exchanging matchboxes. He travels to Seville and continues exchanging matchboxes. He travels to a rural town. Each night he lies upon his bed, fully-dressed. He visits a museum and contemplates different paintings: a nude, a guitar. What does he see? What is he thinking? What is he doing in Spain?
One night he returns to his room to find a voluptuous naked woman (Paz de la Huerta) lying on his bed, a gun in her right hand. "Do you like my ass?" she asks. Is she a figment of his imagination? Did he dream her up off the museum wall? She tempts him to have sex with her, but he remains chaste -- "Not while I'm working" -- even while she slumbers naked, pressed against his body, throughout the night. Is he testing his self-control? Has she been sent to distract him? What is he doing in Spain?
Other people that he meets, objects that he sees, and things that are said keep reappearing: a blonde-wigged woman (Tilda Swinton), guitars, 'the man who thinks he is so big should walk by a cemetery and find out how big he really is' (or words to that effect). As Lone Man works his way steadily up a chain of exchanges, he encounters John Hurt in a cafe, Youki Kudoh (from Jarmusch's Mystery Train) on a train, Gael García Bernal in a village, Bill Murray in a locked room. "How did you get in here?" The Lone Man says, "I used my imagination."
Leone's Westerns were shot in Spain, as was The Limits of Control, but, more to the point, they featured a man with no loyalties except to himself, a man whose only goal was to make money. Jarmusch's Lone Man is stripped of even that motivation. It could be surmised that he's on a mission to recover an item of value or perhaps to extract revenge, but is it integrity or greed that drives him?
As Lone Man, De Bankolé is perfectly precise in the way he carries himself, but he is not a passive character. When a waiter mistakenly brings him a double espresso instead of two espressos in separate cups, he insists on his preference, despite his linguistic limitations. When tempted by the naked woman, he resists -- surely a sign of strength, for she does indeed have a splendid bottom. And top. And face. (He also takes away her gun in the blink of an eye, like the professional he must be, revealing her to be an amateur of sorts.) When trouble lurks nearby, he again exercises self-control and avoids it.
The film itself looks ravishing. Christopher Doyle, whose impressive list of credits stretch out the door, served as director of photography, and his mastery of lighting serves the picture well.
Jim Jarmusch has been working a narrow vein of the same narrative territory for practically his entire filmmaking career. Of course, he's not terribly prolific, so that's only ten feature-length movies in nearly 30 years. Some people may feel he should move on, a complaint that's been heard early and often. Clearly, though, he hasn't exhausted the vein yet, and, really, why should he arbitrarily "move on" to try something different, when he can continue to wring more successful variations on the same theme?
He is what he is, and The Limits of Control could fairly be described as more of the same: exquisitely formal compositions, deadpan delivery of dialogue, an appreciation for the space between words and actions, its plot "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill.
All those elements add up to another beautiful, haunting, hypnotic refrain in the Jarmusch playbook.
Opening today in New York and Los Angeles, The Limits of Control will expand to other cities in the coming weeks. Check the official site for more information.