A solitary man who does not speak Spanish is an underground courier. Two men who are both thuggish and philosophical send him to Madrid with cryptic instructions. Over the course of a few days, he receives his instructions from a series of distinctive individuals who provide words of philosophy or of warning and also give him a matchbox with a tiny piece of paper, which he reads then eats, accompanied by espresso served in two cups. He is quiet, self-contained, focused on his work. He has rules. He encounters and at times transmits a violin, diamonds, a guitar, and a map. Is he a smuggler? Merely an independent conduit? Or, something else? Written by
Several lines of dialogue spoken by Tilda Swinton's character are taken from an essay Swinton wrote about film entitled "A Letter to a Boy from his Mother". See more »
When the Lone Man travels from Madrid to Sevilla, he enters a S 100 AVE train set. But the interior shots are clearly done in a S 103 (Velaro E), a totally different - and much newer - type of train. See more »
[character speaks in Spanish/French creole, English subtitles]
You don't speak Spanish, right?
[character translates for Creole]
You don't speak Spanish, right?
You are ready? Everything's cool?
You are ready? Everything's cool?
See more »
This is a tough picture to review, although I can really only come to one conclusion: you have to watch it for yourself. Jim Jarmusch based it on the idea of making an "action movie without action", and I think that's pretty accurate. The film follows a mysterious man around Spain, where he meets with even more mysterious contacts and exchanges secret messages. Clearly he is on a mission, a dangerous and illegal one. But what is his job? Who does he work for? These questions will keep you on the edge of your seat. All the ingredients of a frantic crime thriller are there, yet the film keeps a slow pace. What exactly is going on here?
Never has it been so thrilling, beautiful, and entertaining to watch a man walk around. The audience never knows what to expect, everything could be significant. In contrast, the mysterious man never hesitates, everything he does is carefully planned and executed, according to plan. Clearly, someone is pulling the strings. Someone, somewhere, is "in control". The camera, however, focuses on this man, one cogwheel in a large machinery. You're always aware that you only see part of the picture, that everything would make sense if you could just zoom out and know a little more.
"The Limits of Control" plays with a lot of established film clichés, and it teases you with your expectations. You are familiar with the form Hollywood movies have converged to over the past decades, how they are put together and what they have in common. Mainstream productions carefully avoid surprising their audience because after all, some of them could be disappointed or irritated. You think you know what you're up against, because you've seen it before. But "The Limits of Control" will fool you. It does not care about conventions, it tells the story it wants to.
However, this means that the film actually expects you to have been spoiled by the countless movies you've seen. It helps to know a few things about film genres and eras, but it is downright essential to have seen a number of common spy movies, action flicks, mystery thrillers. If you're not familiar with the narrative conventions used in movies, you will most likely not get the point. This made me wonder whether it is acceptable to recommend a movie if it cannot be thoroughly enjoyed without having that kind of film experience beforehand. But in the end, movies are always about one thing: whether you will have a good time watching it. And I think it must have been years since I last left a theater so delighted.
The thing is that this wouldn't be the movie you show your friend who is only just starting to develop an interest in films. For those who have been devouring movies for some time, who know a thing or two about their strengths and weaknesses, and the way they tell stories, this film is an incredible piece of art. In any case, it does however require an open mind because it might initially be hard to "keep up" with the slowness of the movie. But if you can cope with anything more sophisticated than a Michael Bay movie, you should do fine. Just don't expect to have the story and all the explanations shoved down your throat. Half of the movie takes place in your head, because you are trying to make sense of what is happening.
In more technical aspects, De Bankolé gives a breathtaking performance. At first it might not seem like he's doing much, but then you realize how perfectly every move, every look, every word, spoken or unspoken, fits the scene. The film's mystery is built on his presence, and it must have been a terrible pressure to carry so much responsibility for the atmosphere of the movie. The result is a lead character that is several times cooler than any babbling wiseacre (à la Pulp Fiction) could ever be. I was also amazed by the appearances of Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. Not only their characters, but also their lines which are symbolic for the level this movie works on.
You know how movie reviewers sometimes have to look for that perfect moment for a screen capture? A frame that is beautiful to look at and, without any motion or dialog, is able to give readers an idea of the movie's style? It must be a hell of a task for this film, because you could take such a frame from almost any of the scenes. It is in this consistently high quality, in any area, that the experience of Jarmusch as a filmmaker really shows. Every moment, every scene is carefully set up, perfectly composed and just beautiful to look at, like a picture in itself. Every word spoken is deeply meaningful, almost every sentence is a one-line word of wisdom or food for thought. Sounds are carefully used, as are the minimal musical snippets. Often, there is just a very poignant silence.
I suppose that if you are trying to decide whether you are going to watch this movie, having heard what people say about it, you wonder whether you will be disappointed in the end, whether it will just be a succession of pointless scenes. This was also my concern, but I promise that you won't feel cheated in the end. I don't care for posh movies that try to be as "artsy" as possible just for the heck of it; "The Limits of Control" is genuinely entertaining, and it is as much a part of traditional cinema as it is a reflection upon it. It is a minimal thriller, a mystery feature in the true sense of the word. You will think, you will theorize, and you will simply enjoy taking in the sights and sounds. The dream-like feel, the questions, the thoughts will accompany you for a long time after you have left the theater.
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