The Limits of Control is the story of a mysterious loner, a stranger, whose activities remain meticulously outside the law. He is in the process of completing a job, yet he trusts no one, and his objectives are not initially divulged. His journey, paradoxically both intently focused and dreamlike, takes him not only across Spain but also through his own consciousness.

A dry procedural that withholds the details of the plot.

Befitting someone whose first exposure to the creative process was New York’s chaotic downtown punk scene 30 years ago, Jim Jarmusch makes genre films that invariably disregard the conventions and history he’s taken with. As with 1995’s Dead Man and the western, as well as the lone samurai flick and 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, his new release, The Limits of Control, is an act of droll cinematic subversion. Jarmusch has conceived an episodic, deadpan dry espionage thriller.

'No guns, no mobiles, no sex," pouts a naked femme fatale (Paz de la Huerta) to the Lone Man (Isaach De Bankole), the anonymous anti-hero whose journey across Spain takes him from rendezvous to rendezvous and towards an unknown job. Jarmusch toys with the tropes of the spy flick, referencing ominous circling helicopters and goons in suits, but he doesn’t take them seriously.

The film has a nocturnal soundtrack of oceanic rock – wordless guitar drones and narcotic beats – that suggest an alternate reality. At each meeting The Lone Man receives cryptic instructions and coded messages that he memorises and then swallows; with his high, implacable cheekbones and watchful to the point of silence demeanour, De Bankole’s operative (he never says what he does, only that he’s currently working) is a sounding board for the obsessions and interests of the movie’s creator.

A Japanese contact (Youki Kudoh) delivers a monologue on molecules, while John Hurt’s jittery musician passes on a guitar along with further instructions. The most symbolic is Tilda Swinton’s cowboy hat wearing platinum blonde, who sashays into the frame and delivers a soliloquy on films that’s virtually meta-commentary: 'The best films are like dreams you’re never really sure you had," she observes before name-checking Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai.

There is no explicit threat or dramatic tension in the story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a masterly display of filmmaking. Like a cipher, The Lone Man enters established frames and moves across urban landscapes where intrusive shapes and concrete stairwells dominate the screen. If The Limits of Control doesn’t work for you as a thriller, it could be as easily read as a documentary on 20th century Spanish architecture.

Jarmusch sets a mood that envelopes the story, bending audience expectations to his requirements. In terms of both dialogue and visual style it’s his most austere work, which is troubling for the former and welcome for the latter. The rapid-fire editing and radio chatter of the modern thriller are anathema to Jarmusch. Instead he’s made a procedural where he’s withheld the plot, a decision that may well divide audiences.

But Jarmusch has certainly held his nerve. The Limits of Control doesn’t abandon the cinematic landscape the filmmaker has created when the stakes are finally raised. Befitting a professional, The Lone Man reaches his target and he undertakes his mission – there’s no release via cheap levity or descent into satire. In a movie where the agents and artists are interchangeable, the sting in the tail that is the finale is a reminder about what we’re all capable of when necessary.


1 hour 55 min
In Cinemas 23 July 2009,