Jim Jarmusch’s distinctive new take on a familiar film premise.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s distinctly off-center style is something of an acquired taste. The creative force behind more than two decades of eclectic work, including especially the critical darlings Down By Law and Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s virtuoso ability at juxtaposing cultures between and among unlikely genres has seldom resulted in anything less than fascinating work with a singular voice. It’s a voice that often needs approaching on its own terms, though. Like Tom Waites’ music or T0m Robbins’ fiction, most people either “get” his work or they don’t.
Still, his latest project looks interesting, if only for that celebrated ability to breathe strange new life into familiar tropes. And with The Limits of Control he’s taken on one of the hoariest sub-genres: the supremely-focused criminal becoming distracted by the colorful, treacherous characters around him. A concept that stretches back in film at least as far as the 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake vehicle This Gun For Hire, the idea of the complications that arise when an unstoppable force (the hitman/criminal/fixer) meets the irresolute obstacles that change or dissuade him (love, compassion, fate, the actions of others) has long proven a potent conceit.
It’s also a particularly resonant premise in this recent decade of isolation and acrimony, and its basic elements have achored films highbrow (No Country For Old Men), middlebrow (The Bourne series), and low (The Transporter franchise). Several distinguished directors have already taken a run at the concept, including David Mamet with Spartan, Steven Soderbergh with The Limey, and Michael Mann with Collateral. As displayed by No Country For Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh, the central unyielding force around which the plot and other characters revolve or flee doesn’t have to be completely well-rounded. In fact, audiences often respond to the type if he remains mysterious for as long as possible. Consequently the success of the film often largely rests on the charisma of the actor playing the central figure.
Well, leave it to Jarmusch to take those ideas and move them away from an American setting and towards a more languid and mysterious pace while stripping the genre formula down to its essentials. Set in a sun-drenched and languid Spain and starring an actor (24‘s Isaach DeBankole) more or less unfamiliar to American audiences, the story concerns a criminal carrying out a procession of illegal tasks while encountering a series of people that either help, hinder, or stand opposed to his progress. That’s admittedly not a lot of detail: plot specifics have been kept mum, and the official trailer doesn’t say more than a few genre-standard catchphrases. IMDB and Focus Features’ official site even fail to list character names for the cast, so it’s possible they’re meant to represent archetypes or even just ideas.
Advance press materials say the film is “both intently focused and dreamlike,” meaning its narrative likely has a slippery feel to it that in almost anyone else’s hands but Jarmusch’s would serve as cause for audience hesitation. While it’s a little obvious to say his very European approach to story and image construction seems best in a European setting, it’s maybe a little less obvious that the neo-noir premise plays to his texture-producing strengths. He’s also assembled a terrific cast, full of his favored performers, that’s potentially full of surprise chemistry as well: the film co-stars Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton, who headed his previous Broken Flowers, while The Motorcycle Diaries’ Gael Garcia Bernal and the great John Hurt also appear. The gorgeous woman clad only in reading glasses, by the way, is rising actress Paz de La Huerta.
The film opens in limited release May 22.