Jim Jarmusch’s wandering thriller. By JACOB POWELL.

OUR SCREENING of Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, The Limits of Control, began with some unexpected drama: the first reel of the film (about 15-20 minutes) had a problem with the audio-picture sync which saw the film’s soundtrack a full three minutes or more out from the video track! The film certainly lived up to its title – one quarter of the audience mutinied, another quarter claimed this was how the film was supposed to be, while the rest sat silent, slightly bemused. A test of the audience’s ‘limits of control’, the fact that I honestly couldn’t tell at the time whether this was intentional or not might give you some insight into the kind of cinematic experience you will be in for if you get to a screening of this intriguing picture.

Ostensibly another existential treatment of the hitman genre, reminiscent of the director’s 1999 low-fi hitman pic Ghost Dog, The Limits of Control goes several steps further, eschewing a regular narrative structure in favour of a more freeform cinematic framework. The obvious comparison to make would be with the work of David Lynch. In fact Limits is much like mid-90s Lynch (Lost Highway) meets Monte Hellman (Two-lane Blacktop) by way of Richard Linklater (Waking Life) and Jacques Rivette (Out 1), all the while retaining Jarmusch’s characteristic stamp. Unlike Lynch, Jarmusch has a clear conceptual narrative framework – a lone hitman (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé) engages in a job and slowly but inexorably makes his way towards his target to achieve his goal – even if that framework never really gets filled in. Instead our unnamed protagonist walks through a series of encounters with a variety of persons loosely defined by their role in his contract. Each encounter plays out like an existential vignette not unlike the structure employed by the director in his 2003 assemblage Coffee and Cigarettes.

These encounters are marked by a series of consistently repeating exchanges: our lone gunman goes to a café, sits outside and orders two shots of espresso in separate cups, both of which he drinks. A contact arrives and identifies him with a question – “You don’t speak Spanish, right?” – followed by the passing of similarly branded but differently coloured matchboxes containing the next direction for his journey (and at various points in the film, paper notes with codes [possibly including room numbers] or diamonds). This repetition is not limited only to setting but characters and, more importantly, dialogue also recur: for instance, Tilda Swinton’s bewigged ‘film critic’ (a comically self-conscious moment from Jarmush sees Swinton’s Blonde say something akin to ‘I like films where the main characters sit in silence’ to the man who stoically sits listening to her ramble), who turns up later in the film on a movie poster. Almost the entire dialogue from the opening scene is eventually recycled throughout the rest of the film, and the words of a flamenco dance song in one scene can be found in both speech, written word (a sign on the back of a truck), and symbol – even as the lead says almost nothing, a ‘dictaphone’ in similar fashion to Linklater’s somnolent philosophy student in Waking Life. This pattern gives the viewer some point of focus and sets a kind of visual rhythm to which the film moves, pictorially matching the filmmaker’s customary bent for strong stylish soundtracks (including music by Boris, Bad Rabbit, and LCD Soundsystem).

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle captures the Spanish locations in all their arid beauty giving Jarmusch a rich visual palette to work with. De Bankolé’s character is himself visual statement, always decked out in a range of colour-coded stylish suits (despite his limited baggage) which sometimes absorbs him into his setting and sometimes puts him at odds with it, such as a scene where he walks through some dusty hellhole and the impoverished youngsters he passes ask him if he is an American gangster. The film is stacked with an interesting array of actors placing another tick in their artistic credibility box, including John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, and Bill Murray, personifying all that is hated about the late Bush administration. Like our hitman, none of these characters are named but each provide a differing lens through which to view him, and consequently the film.

The Limits of Control is about the journey – physical and spiritual – of our seldom spoken hitman (rather than various pieces of action he engages in) as well as us the audience, and this trip ultimately elucidates Jarmusch’s love of the cinematic medium. Those who can let go of any narrative expectations I’m sure will enjoy the ride as much as I did – even if you won’t have the benefit of an out-of-sync soundtrack to make things clearer from the start!