Back in the early ’60s, when Sonny Liston ruled boxing and hard bop could still be found on the corner jukebox, just wearing a sharkskin suit could be construed as an act of aggression, passive or otherwise. Sharkskin is the uniform of choice worn by the protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s alluring, enigmatic “The Limits of Control.” Isaach De Bankolé’s Lone Man (for that’s how he is ID’d in the program notes, if not the movie itself) is like Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, taciturn and resolute, if also exposed to more sunlight. Lone Man’s granite-slab impassiveness is buttressed by the sharkskin’s implicit provocation. Yet, as with his suits, De Bankolé maintains his character’s angular, creased surfaces throughout the movie. Only when the routine is ruffled does his composure show nicks — as when a café waiter brings him a double espresso in one cup instead of two espressos in separate cups, which is what he asks for in the first place.
Why? Sorry, that’s one of the many things you’ll have to accept without explanation if you want to roll with “The Limits of Control.” From the start, you’re kept at arm’s length from clarity. Lone Man strides towards his assignment, delivered in an airport waiting area in random aphorisms by an agitated brother named Creole (Alex Descas). Though Creole’s designated “French” translator (Jean-François Stévenin) shares our overall bewilderment with these gnomic commands, Lone Man acknowledges everything with consensual, casually enforced silence.
So he flies to Spain, where he waits for further instructions, receiving coded messages in matchboxes bearing the logo “Le Boxeuer.” (He swallows each message, washing them down with the aforementioned espressos.) He’s met at his hotel room by a young woman named Nude (Paz de La Huerta), whose only article of clothing is a transparent plastic raincoat. (He gently rebuffs her offers of sex with the words “Not while I’m working,” though he allows her to curl naked into his fully-clothed body in bed at night.) He goes to art galleries where he encounters canvasses that are somehow linked to his next café appointment with whomever has a matchbook, a tool that could be useful in whatever covert act that’s being planned — or another set of aphorisms.
An international cast of heavyweights (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Luis Tosar, Youki Kudoh, Gael García Bernal) make up the enigmatic group with whom De Bankolé’s Lone Man has these encounters. Their conversations are about everything — old movies, molecular physics, Bohemia’s decline — except whatever the assignment is. Random acts of violence and terror lurk at the edges, but they, too, offer no clarification. And when Lone Man has his ultimate rendezvous with a Cheney-esque Ugly American sharpie (Bill Murray), task at hand, you sense the latter somehow has it coming to him without understanding why.
Have I spoiled it for you? With as many loose ends as “The Limits of Control” brings to the table, I doubt it; that is, unless you’ve decided (as many reviewers already have) that Jarmusch is carrying his own penchant for absurdist mischief too far. There have been occasions when Jarmusch has tempted me towards similar conclusions. Not this one. For one thing, he’s got Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai’s go-to DP, orchestrating the light and shadow of Spain’s urban and rural terrain. Doyle’s comfortable enough with framing enigmas to give them the kind of romance that can — and has — sustained even the most threadbare conventional thriller.
Otherwise, I think what Jarmusch is up to here is a kind of moviemaking that comes perilously close to music or dance, where the momentum isn’t shaped by explicit plot details so much as by chimeras of movies embedded in our collective dream-life. This is crystallized in an exchange De Bankolé has when he confronts a surprised Murray in a heavily guarded sanctuary. When asked how he got past search lights, barbed wire and a thick phalanx of ski-masked security guards, Lone Man replies, “I used my imagination.” Some may view this as a coy evasion. But when you think about the indignities visited upon our imaginative faculties by our digital-cable cultural backwash, it sounds like an assertion of will. For a habitually deadpan sensibility like that belonging to Jarmusch, it sounds almost passionate.