Bathing in the Poem
Sometimes, I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything,
—The Blonde (Tilda Swinton)
The sufis say each one of us is a planet spinning in ecstasy. I say each one of us is a set of spinning molecules, spinning in ecstasy.
—Molecules (Youki Kudoh)
The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) first appears alone. The camera is pitched down and the lens looks warped, like a surveillance device from overhead. He’s in a bathroom stall, practicing a mangled tai chi, calming himself, preparing for the ordeals to come. The Lone Man looks powerful as well as contemplative, acutely aware even if he is in his own world.
The Lone Man doesn’t talk much in The Limits of Control. Emerging from the stall, he observes his mirror reflection, pauses to polish his shoe on one of those automatic wheels. And with that little bit of non-action, he is ready. Like many a cool guy operative, the Lone Man seems focused and imperturbable, his shiny sharkskinny suit an emblem of his inviolable surface. And indeed, when he meets with the men in inevitable sunglasses who pass on his assignment, he is attentive and polite, his expression—framed again and again in close-ups—barely indicating that he’s quite aware of what you can’t help but note here: the assignment and the assigners are silly.
To be sure, Jim Jarmusch’s movie benefits infinitely from the fact that it is De Bankolé‘s face that takes up so much screen space and time. Perfectly lined, angled, and striking, it is a face that seems to reveal more than it does. His contacts, the Creole Man (Alex Descas) and the French Man (Jean-François Stévenin)—replete with sunglasses—ascertain the ostensible limits of his comprehension with a question that will be put to the Lone Man by every person he meets in this film (“Usted no habla español, verdad?”). And with that, they proceed to lay out his mission and its specious grounds. He will go to Madrid, he will use his imagination and his skills to wait for two days, sit in a café, and “look for the violin.” The Lone Man listens. “The universe has no center and no edge,” asserts the French Man. “Reality is arbitrary.”
At first blush, this seems the sort of doubletalk that allows spy handlers to hand out missions without explanations, the sort of esoteric framework that eventually drives the Jason Bournes of the world to rebel oh so climactically. But the codes and routines the Lone Man follows assiduously—dutifully memorizing and swallowing numbers on slips of paper, refusing sex with his Spanish contact, the Nude (Paz de La Huerta), ordering two espressos in two cups—don’t lead to any coherent questions, let alone resolutions. The arbitrariness is not deep in the French Man’s configuration, but convenient, a means to ends desired by those who believe they’re in control.
At the same time, the phrase approximates a useful truth, one that the Lone Man only comes to appreciate when he sees it embodied, long days later, by the American (Bill Murray). Holed up in a bunker like Dick Cheney, the American is angry and afraid, ardently insisting to the Lone Man that “People like you don’t know how the world works. Your sick minds have been polluted with crap.” That is, in the movie’s most overt assertion, the kind of crap peddled by the American and his ilk. There is no center or set of edges for him, because he makes them up when he wants.
The Lone Man’s route to this encounter is slow and deliberate. Much like the routes followed by Jarmuch’s other seekers, it is punctuated by antic profundities and, in this case, a series of short turns by cool-school actors in absurd get-ups. The Blonde (Tilda Swinton in a platinum wig, white cowboy hat, and leopardy boots) prattles on about her affection for movies (“Have you seen Lady from Shanghai?” she asks, “That one makes no sense”) and the Mexican (Gael García Bernal), whose pickup truck sports a bumper sticker reading “La vida no vale nada,” observes sagely that “Everything changes according to the glass you see it through.”
As the Lone Man absorbs these many annotations (or doesn’t, depending on how you read Bankolé‘s face) without offering much in return. Like Ghost Dog without the helpful narration, the Lone Man is initially obedient and efficient. He sits in the plane, sits in his hotel room, sits at the café. He’s observed by a U.S. surveillance helicopter. He visits the Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, where he gazes impassively at meaningful art. He does what he’s told, calmly and without the usual spy movie distractions (“No guns, no mobiles, no sex,” observes the Nude, who tries more than once to entice him).
The Lone Man’s loss of resolve—or more accurately, the redirection of his resolve—grants the movie something of a regular ending. There’s an explosion, a bit of imprecise vengeance, and a shift in terms. And with that, this oddly entertaining and tenaciously abstract film makes concrete its grasp of real world politics. The limits of control are simultaneously intimate and global. And Bankolé‘s face reveals just as much as you can know.