The Limits of Control
The Limits of Control is a film about subjective meaning. Its title comes from a William S. Burroughs essay ("The Limits of Control") about how language is used as a control mechanism. "No control machine so far devised can operate without words," writes Burroughs, "and any control machine which attempts to do so relying entirely on external force or entirely on physical control of the mind will soon encounter the limits of control." It's not entirely clear exactly how this idea fits into writer/director Jim Jarmusch's film. There are a number of ways you could look at it. And for better or maybe worse, that is exactly the point.
Jarmusch is an arthouse director. Throughout his career, his films—whether Down by Law or Dead Man, Ghost Dog or Broken Flowers—have been less about understanding "meaning" than appreciating "moments," which has resulted in a resume full of eccentric cult classics, oddball gems, and maddeningly esoteric art experiments. The Limits of Control follows strongly in this tradition: it's a resoundingly subjective, trippy experience, not recommended for the hardcore objectivists of the world (or even the moderate objectivists).
The film opens with an appropriately cryptic quote from Arthur Rimbaud: "As I descended impassable rivers / I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen." Importantly, the quote is first given to us in French, and then English. Language, translation, and the fluid meaning of words is a motif that pops up again and again in this film. Fans of Derrida will resonate.
The "plot" follows "Lone Man" (Isaach De Bankolé), a well-dressed, methodical man on a mysterious mission in a foreign land (Spain) to do something that is by all appearances criminal in nature. But we never know any of the details, and Lone Man says maybe two dozen words the entire film. He moves deliberately through each scene, with a zen-like intensity and a fondness for leisurely enjoying a pair of single espressos at seemingly every opportunity. He's unbridled by relationships, emotions, or sex (even when naked women literally throw themselves on him), and at times appears to be in some sort of trancelike state. De Bankolé—a French/African actor who has worked with Jarmusch on three other films—basically acts the part of a blank slate, and yet it is a credit to his talents that we can watch him be silent and slow for two hours and still be compelled.
Control consists of Lone Man traveling around Spain, having a series of déjà vulike encounters with a motley assortment of curiously dressed people, each providing him with a matchbox containing some sort of code on a small piece of paper (which he reads and then eats). All of it is very secret and ambiguous, in a subversively carefree sort of way. By the time we find out what the trail of codes apparently had been leading Lone Man to do, it hardly even matters. This is not a film about what happens. It's a film about arresting images, atmospheric sounds, and how they work together to create something beautiful (if a little too inaccessible, at times).