By Jeffrey Overstreet
Do you remember that pregnant pause?
Mia Wallace, sucking on a maraschino cherry in Pulp Fiction, poses a flirtatious question to her nervous bodyguard, Vincent Vega. “Don’t you hate that?” she asks.
“Hate what?” he replies.
“Uncomfortable silences,” says Mia. And yet, it’s obvious that she’s loving every minute of their erotically charged night on the town. She continues, “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable? ... That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special—when you can just shut the [bleep] up for a minute and comfortably share a silence.”
Do you like uncomfortable silences? If so, you’ll discover somebody really special in Jim Jarmusch.
Jarmusch is a filmmaker who loves silences and all of the electrical possibilities they open up. In past films like Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes, he’s celebrated the pleasures of conversation, but his latest is an exhibition of restraint, and an exploration of what can be conveyed through hints and codes.
The Limits of Control is set in Spain. The movie follows a mysterious protagonist—identified in the credits as “the Lone Man”—played by Isaach De Bankolé of TV’s 24. Although he’s never named in the film, the Lone Man seems to be a secret agent on a mission.
When we meet the Lone Man, he’s practicing tai chi, a discipline of achieving a meditative concentration. In this way, Jarmusch may be calling the audience to calm attentiveness.
Then we follow this mysterious agent through a series of episodic encounters with eccentric colleagues and criminals, from Madrid to Seville to the wilderness. But his quest is secondary, existing almost as an excuse for a cinematic exercise.
For each sequence, Jarmusch draws a few cards from a strange deck. Scene by scene, you’ll notice some of those cards recurring. The common elements accentuate variations and contrasts in visual composition, textures, conversational styles, and kinds of silences.
Several conversations begin with the secret agent being asked—in Spanish—if he speaks Spanish. He replies, in Spanish, that he does not. This oft-repeated, nonsensical exchange suggests that we should not worry much about whether the words make sense; we should be more interested in the pattern itself.
Characters who seem like they’re part of the Lone Man’s conspiratorial organization tend to exchange matchboxes with him, matchboxes that contain secret messages. He unfolds them, reads them, and eats them.
In one riveting scene, these elements appear during a cryptic chat about an old movie with a flamboyantly stylish woman (Tilda Swinton, with white hair and an unnecessary umbrella). In another, they occur during the rehearsal of a flamenco dance.
By surprising us with these repetitions, Jarmusch suggests that we shouldn’t be taking these events as literal, traditional storytelling. This is play—serious play. Why fret about figuring it out? Just enjoy the different kinds of rhythms and melodies that can happen when a series of notes are juxtaposed in unexpected ways.
Jarmusch’s protagonist addresses each situation with unwavering focus and Zen-like calm. He won’t give in to the typical temptations that distract secret agents, just as Jarmusch won’t give in to the easy conventions of plot-driven cinema.
For example, the Lone Man spends long, lazy scenes in his hotel room where a voluptuous, naked femme-fatale temptress—identified only as “the Nude”—has appeared without any explanation. Like a conventional plot device threatening to make this feel like a genre movie, she gives him every opportunity to lose his concentration. “No guns, no sex… how can you stand it?” she purrs. But just as his hero is unwavering in his focus, Jarmusch won’t be lured into the familiar paces of spy-thriller plots.
As a result, the scenes that should be charged with sexual tension become more like abstract art. And The Limits of Control contains a whole art gallery’s worth of powerful images—some of them cinematic, and some of them hanging on the walls of the gallery where the Lone Man likes to meditate. The great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who also filmed Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, does far more than merely point and shoot. He incorporates exciting lines of extravagant architecture into exquisite compositions of light, shadow, and reflection. At times, it feels more like a photography exhibit than a film.
So why, then, does The Limits of Control conclude by flying off the rails, throwing the Lone Man into a violent, bloody showdown with a shouting, furious manipulator?
That’s sure to inspire myriad interpretations. Me, I think that this is the moment when Jarmusch shares something personal. The Mystery Man’s target (played by Bill Murray) is a corporate tyrant, an arrogant monster, who wants to see everything, control everything, and restrict people. He is the enemy of variation. He strives to prevent surprise, accident, personality, life. He’s a suit, and he seems to want to put the world in a straitjacket. Bland and humorless, he seems to represent forces that seek to stifle and restrict artistic expression.
“How did you get in here?” he shouts at the Lone Man, like the king of American Moviemaking throwing the same question at Jarmusch himself.
I don’t know what the Mystery Man will mean to you. For me, he’s calling me to have eyes to see and ears to hear. He’s calling me to listen for the ways in which one circumstance connects with another. He’s calling me to seek, find, and savor all that is symmetrical and all that is surprising in what ordinarily seems unrelated.
He’s calling me to care about the very thing that most factory-produced American movies fail to capture: Mystery with a capital “M.”
To some, Jim Jarmusch’s films will amount to hours of boredom. I’m inclined to suggest, though, that the problem is not with Jarmusch’s films. It’s with moviegoers who are interested only in prose, not poetry.
Nevertheless, I haven’t given up. I think that most people, exposed to the right Jarmusch film, will find themselves caught off guard, and enjoying something unexpected. That experience can be an inspiring introduction to filmmaking that goes beyond the mere illustration of a narrative. Jarmusch teases our minds into a productive discomfort. In doing so, he opens up a larger, more rewarding world of cinema.