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PRINT May 2009

BREAKING THE CODES

JIM JARMUSCH’S NEW FILM, The Limits of Control, is a cryptographer’s dream. In this interpretation—fittingly, one among many—the cryptographer is at once the filmmaker, the viewer, and the film’s protagonist, a professional hit man (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who travels through Spain, following a series of gnomic clues as he tracks down his target. The dream is the film itself, an embodiment of the Surrealist notion of movies as oneiric experiences—elusive projections where memory and desire are coded in images of disturbing beauty. Thoroughly implicated in the very apparatus of moviemaking (photography and editing) and exhibition (projection), Surrealism infiltrated many popular and art-film genres. The Limits of Control is partly inspired by one such strain—French secret-society conspiracy narratives, most pertinently the silent serials of Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires [1915], Judex [1916]), Jacques Rivette’s early New Wave Paris Belongs to Us (1960) and his epic Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), and many of the films that the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz has made over the past thirty-odd years in France and Portugal.
 
Acknowledged worldwide as an “American independent,” Jarmusch has always kept one foot in the US and the other abroad in terms of the form, content, and financing of his movies. His United States is a land of immigrants and subcultures, where no one seems at home—except for the Native American spirit guide in his greatest film, Dead Man (1995). Beginning with Stranger than Paradise (1984), all his films could be described as “travelogues,” but only one, Night on Earth (1991), is situated, even in part, outside North America. The Limits of Control is in that sense a first: Set in Spain and shot by the brilliant, freewheeling Hong Kong–based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, it fabricates its alluring dreamscape from the vistas, architecture, and dramatically shifting light that inspired a century of surrealist visions. And yet this is also a movie made from an American perspective, albeit a subversive one. Its title is taken from an essay of the same name by William S. Burroughs, and its production company, PointBlank, named for the 1967 chill neo-noir puzzle movie directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin as a blinkered but implacable avenger, perhaps come back from the dead to put a bullet through the heart not only of his nemesis but of the Hollywood studio system as well. Most crucially, Jarmusch’s villain, identified in the credits as the “American” and played by Bill Murray, faces down the man who comes to kill him, raging against everything that the director, his films, and their audience hold dear.
 
Like Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control is built around the journey of one man: an outsider with a mission. Here the character is even named the Lone Man (though no one ever calls him that). The narrative alternates sequences of this inscrutable sojourner alone—traveling by plane, train, and automobile and performing private rituals to hone his body and his imagination—with one-on-one meetings with his contacts, played by an international array of actors, including Hiam Abbass, Gael García Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, Alex Descas, John Hurt, Oscar Jaenada, Youki Kudoh, Tilda Swinton, and Luis Tosar. Although the hit man presents an enigmatic face to the world, he is also a fully human presence—De Bankolé’s performance suggests that he contains multitudes—especially compared with his contacts, who, despite their intense and colorful obsessions, are as flat as tarot-card figures. In the endless succession of hotel rooms he briefly inhabits, the hit man practices tai chi and listens to Schubert, but his quest is driven by a score that features noise bands, including the Japanese ensemble Boris, who sound like early Velvet Underground combined with New York No Wave (a scene in which Jarmusch participated in the early ’80s)—all processed through a contemporary Japanese rock sensibility. The Limits of Control presents a vision of a culture, not without limits, perhaps, but certainly without borders.
 
The Limits of Control opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 1.
 
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.

Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 116 minutes. Production still. Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé). Photo: Teresa Isasi-Isasmendi.

AMY TAUBIN: Has anyone ever told you that you look amazingly like Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s Point Blank [1967]?

JIM JARMUSCH: Well, yeah, because I’ve been in this secret organization—the Sons of Lee Marvin—for twenty years. We consider ourselves his theoretical sons. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Nick Cave are members, and so was [the writer] Richard Boes, who just died. Both Sam Fuller and John Boorman told me I remind them of Lee sometimes. John Boorman even asked me to read Marvin’s war diaries for a film. He said my voice sometimes reminds him of Lee’s, too.

AT: It’s a remarkable resemblance, given that your body language is nothing like his. The similarity is just from the neck up—in close-up. When did you first see Point Blank?

JJ: Probably in the late ’70s, not when it came out in the ’60s. When we made The Limits of Control, we weren’t trying to imitate

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