Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
In a 2004 mini-monograph called “The Golden Rules of Filming,” Jim Jarmusch exhorts directors to borrow and cull with intertextual abandon: “Nothing is original,” he says, a mantra he has contradicted with sporadic brilliance while building a career on obsessive allusion. That Book-of-Ecclesiastes mysticism is the only discernible motif in The Limits of Control, written and directed by Jarmusch as a series of unevenly preachy encounters in the vein of Waking Life and tracing an even less scrutable hitman (Isaach De Bankolé, credited as the “Lone Man”) as he lopes from Madrid to Seville and back in search of his quarry. His journey is punctuated by a series of café encounters with mysterious co-conspirators, who recognize the Lone Man as one of their own by his shiny suit and his irritating habit of insisting that every camarero serve him “two espressos in separate cups.” These interlocutors—Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, and others—spout stylish blather, reciting the film’s various mantras about the universe having “no center or edges” and delivering homilies, each on a narrow topic (music, film, art, science, and mescaline, to name a few). There’s also a floozy who appears in Bankolé’s room, naked with a gun. She moons about, still wearing nothing or, on a demure day, puts on a transparent raincoat and pouts when he denies her sex (“I’m working,” he says) as she waits for the jewels she’s been promised or for the protag to say a word. (You’d be uptight, too, if you drank that much espresso.) The plot fairly creeps along, the sole hook being a certain “what’s in the box?” curiosity. And if, like me, you spend the first 100 minutes waiting for Bill Murray to leaven the proceedings, his quick entrance and quicker exit constitute a powerful anticlimax. The film is lovingly, desolately shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and the steady-handed photography jars beautifully with an excellent, schizophrenic soundtrack. But this is all window-dressing, as are the stylish, Coffee & Cigarettes-type vignettes. All that nihilistic phraseology serves merely as code, indicating a circle of cognoscenti rather than an articulate philosophy; so, too, for the film, which delivers its ideas in slow telegraphy but without a whole lot of weight behind them. Returning to Jarmusch’s mimetic imperative, then, the question remains: If nothing is new under the sun, why does Jarmusch keep finding new ways to tell us about it?