Last week Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control came out on DVD. I loved it, and was completely baffled by the weird, negative response to it. Baffled, and a little depressed. Has Jarmusch really changed so much that his existential road trips don't work anymore? Or is it that we have grown far too lazy to enjoy them? Twenty-five years ago, Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise -- another existential road trip -- opened, and it caused quite a stir in the fledgling "indie" world. It gained a small and passionate following, and its funky, deadpan humor tapped into something. Hardly anything happens in the film. A girl from Hungary comes to visit her cousin in New York. They spend a few aimless days together and she leaves. Later, the cousin and his friend travel to Cleveland to see her again, and the three of them decide to drive to Florida.
Even when something happens in this film, such as a mysterious bagman botching a dropoff, it happens without any kind of setup or payoff. It just sort of drops into the frame and then out again. Even the road trip itself is uneventful and passes quickly. The travelers don't meet any quirky characters or get into chases. They just drive and arrive at their destination. Really, there's not much difference between that film and The Limits of Control, which tells the story of a hitman preparing to do a job. He travels from place to place and collects several peculiar clues before finally arriving at his destination. His actual mission is completed in much the same matter-of-fact way, without much fanfare. The films feature the same kind of deadpan dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, highlighting spare backgrounds.
So what happened? Perhaps people were perturbed by the big-name, or at least cool collection of stars featured in The Limits of Control -- including Isaach De Bankole, Alex Descas, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael Garcia Bernal and John Hurt -- whereas Stranger than Paradise had a largely unknown cast (at the time). Or perhaps people were put off by the increasingly obtuse, deliberately mysterious dialogue, which borders on preachiness; characters often relay little philosophical tidbits about life to the nameless hitman hero. Did critics feel they were being preached to? If so, why did the similar dialogue in Jarmusch's Dead Man (1996) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000) get a pass?
In Dead Man, Johnny Depp takes a existential journey (not exactly a road trip, but the spiritual equivalent), guided by an American Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer), who constantly tells him interesting things to ponder about life. Similarly, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) lives his life according to The Hagakure and leads a similarly stripped-down, controlled life. Perhaps the hitman in the new movie, portrayed as a stripped-down-to-nearly-nothing cipher by De Bankole, is less emotionally interesting than either Depp or Whitaker, who managed to imbue their characters with a bit of suffering and humanity. But I found this nothing man even more fascinating, simply because I kept waiting for a clue as to what makes him tick (why does he order those two espressos?). Just because Jarmusch never provides the answer, does not mean that it isn't there.
Yet, despite the fact that it has very little difference from Jarmusch's other films, The Limits of Control remains his one and only "rotten tomato" in his entire directorial filmography (aside from Year of the Horse). I suppose that every great director needs at least one misunderstood masterwork that makes his or her career more interesting. Take Broken Flowers (2005) as another example. The critics approved it, but it quickly disappeared. I found Bill Murray's performance the equivalent of what he achieved in Lost in Translation, and I found it arguably Jarmusch's most emotionally accomplished film. Murray has a magical hangdog way of letting situations happen to him and yet remaining the active center of them. It's also another existential road trip, with Murray visiting several former girlfriends, looking for a clue as to the possible existence of a son he never knew he had. If that's not enough, the film had another great performance by Jeffrey Wright as the amateur detective who sends Murray on his way.
Jarmusch is one of our most rigorous directors, and barely a frame passes by that doesn't seem carefully planned. As a result, he's also very slow, having completed only 11 features in nearly 30 years, and that's counting his little-seen debut Permanent Vacation (1982), his concert film Year of the Horse (1997) and the compilation film Coffee and Cigarettes (2004). This track record puts him alongside other rigorous, slow-moving artists as Chaplin, Kubrick and Bresson. Those artists were always easy targets from impatient writers and viewers, though Jarmusch has by far the driest and most cynical sense of humor of the batch, which makes him an even easier target (many writers have simply taken to calling him "boring").
Really, I think that's what is at issue here. Jarmusch has long cultivated an aura of cool, and perhaps that coolness has gone on too long; it's just no longer cool. Either that, or people no longer feel invited inside the club of cool when they're watching. Certainly De Bankole's chilly hitman had a way of shutting off any potential audience identification. With just a little work, however, it's easy to look beyond that surface and find many other treasures or surprises. At least that's what the truly cool would do.
More on Jim Jarmusch from Asylum: Turn Your Trip Into a Journey -- the Jim Jarmusch Way