The Limits of Control harks back to the existential crime films that enjoyed a golden age in the late ’60s with Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Samourai” and John Boorman’s “Point Blank.” Mr. Jarmusch summed up his intentions with typical dry perversity: “I always wanted to make an action film with no action, or a film with suspense but no drama.”
In keeping with his fondness for repetition and episodic structures, “The Limits of Control” takes shape as a series of interactions and transactions. The lone man runs into a series of colorful types (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray and others, making the most of minimal screen time), most of them envoys of a sort, who dispense gnomic instructions and presumably less pertinent ruminations. Matchboxes branded “Le Boxeur” are exchanged. Some contain a piece of paper bearing coded inscriptions, which the De Bankolé character dutifully folds up and swallows, washing down the clue with a gulp of espresso.
Mr. Jarmusch’s previous film, the melancholic “Broken Flowers” (2005), in which Mr. Murray played a graying lothario who goes in search of his former flames, seemed like the product of a mellowed middle age. But “The Limits of Control” affirms that at 56 he remains open as ever to experimentation, perhaps even to new ways of making and seeing movies.
There are obvious affinities between “The Limits of Control” and Mr. Jarmusch’s most adventurous film, “Dead Man,” which received mixed reviews when it was released but found its way onto many critics’ lists of the best movies of the ’90s. Each film undertakes a journey that is as much metaphysical as literal: a trip in more than one sense. By opening with a quotation from the Rimbaud poem “The Drunken Boat,” with its hallucinatory visions of being lost at sea, “The Limits of Control” even picks up where “Dead Man” left off, with Johnny Depp’s character being pushed out to sea and into the spirit world.
The title comes from an essay by William S. Burroughs about mind-control techniques. “I like the double sense,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “Is it the limits to our own self-control? Or is it the limits to which they can control us, ‘they’ being whoever tries to inject some kind of reality over us?”
But the title also registers as an acknowledgment that control, while unavoidable in the messy collective endeavor of moviemaking, runs counter to Mr. Jarmusch’s free-form approach. He starts with specific actors, gathers up seemingly unrelated ideas and settles on situations and moods before filling in what passes for a plot. “I work backwards,” he said. “That can be dangerous, and it can take a while.” For “The Limits of Control” he had even fewer starting points than usual: an actor, a character and a place, the curving Torres Blancas, a Madrid apartment tower that he first visited in the ’80s.
Location scouting was critical, since the movie, as Mr. Jarmusch saw it, was very much a matter of finding evocative spaces and landscapes and responding to them. The film came together as a connect-the-dots exercise. He sketched out the character’s itinerary, beginning in the cosmopolitan capital, Madrid, then heading south to the Moorish city of Seville on a high-speed train that traverses the olive groves and almond orchards of the Andalusian countryside. The eventual destination is the southeast, the lunar desert terrain near the coastal town of Alméria (where many spaghetti westerns were shot).
Mr. Jarmusch started filming without a complete script; instead he had what he called “a minimal map,” a 25-page story. The dialogue was filled in the night before a scene was shot. “With Jim it’s always about what’s between the lines,” said Mr. De Bankolé, who has appeared in three of Mr. Jarmusch’s previous films.
The odd little totems and fetishes embedded throughout the movie may seem arbitrary, but mention any one of them and Mr. Jarmusch will riff at length about its personal significance. He had received the Boxeur matches, which are common throughout Africa, as gifts, first from the musicologist Louis Sarno, then from Mr. De Bankolé, who was born in Ivory Coast. The black pickup truck that transports Mr. De Bankolé’s character to his ultimate destination, down to the slogan emblazoned on it (“La Vida No Vale Nada,” the title of a song by the Cuban singer and revolutionary Pablo Milanés), is modeled on one owned by Joe Strummer of the Clash, who appeared in “Mystery Train” and, before his death in 2002, lived part time in the south of Spain.
Music was the most important key to the rhythms and textures of the film. Mr. Jarmusch’s soundtracks are the height of hipster connoisseurship: Neil Young’s feedback-choked guitar vamps on “Dead Man,” RZA’s sinuous hip-hop on “Ghost Dog,” Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz-funk on “Broken Flowers.” For “The Limits of Control,” which called for a soundscape that he described as “layered, big, sort of damaged,” he relies on distortion-heavy epics by ambient-noise bands like Boris and Sunn O))).
Like Forest Whitaker’s urban samurai in “Ghost Dog,” Mr. De Bankolé’s character is an apparent adherent of Eastern philosophy. The lone man practices tai chi and has a deliberate, Zenlike air to him. (At museums he takes in only one painting per visit.) Mr. De Bankolé said he got into character by reading the Japanese martial-arts manual “The Art of Peace.”
“It would slow me down,” he said. “He should be almost floating when he walks.”
Mr. Jarmusch is not a practicing Buddhist, but he said, “it’s a philosophy that speaks to me more clearly than others.” He does tai chi and qigong and has come up with a concentration exercise — “a cross between meditating and taking a hallucinogenic drug” — that requires him to pay close attention to all noises within earshot. (In a lovely sequence Mr. De Bankolé’s character lies on his bed in a Seville apartment as the light changes and the sounds of the neighborhood wash over him.)
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