There are limits to artistic self-indulgence, limits to how long a filmmaker can keep spinning his creative wheels before his work approaches self-parody, and limits to the tolerance of even a devoted specialized audience for artistic vacuity, and they are all well exceeded by “The Limits of Control.” This discerningly photographed travelogue of modern Spain features Jim Jarmusch in shallow poetaster mode, grafting familiar quasi-philosophical doodles and trendy cameos onto a woolly hitman’s journey. The limit on the theatrical potential for this Focus Features release is extreme.
Drinking lots of espresso (emphatically two single shots in two separate cups) and impassively refusing to show any emotion (except once, when a waiter dares serve him a double in one cup) while making his way across Spain by plane, train and automobile, French/African thesp Isaach De Bankole makes for the most verbally inexpressive leading man since Wall-E, in his fourth appearance for Jarmusch. Blessed with boldly structured facial features that at least hold one’s attention longer than would those of most people, De Bankole scarcely says a thing as he receives a series of enigmatic instructions from a succession of contacts — “Go to the cafe … wait two days … the guitar will find you,” this sort of thing — and only springs to life while doing tai chi routines.
Pointedly ignoring the arguably overexposed Barcelona in favor of Madrid, Sevilla and other locations, Jarmusch would seem to have devoted more time to selecting — and then, with ace lenser Christopher Doyle, deciding how to shoot — the film’s striking architectural settings than he has to layering his story with depth or meaning. Structurally, given the long trek to an unknown destination, “Limits” most readily calls to mind the estimable “Dead Man” among Jarmusch’s films. But there are no cultural, spiritual or historical reverberations on this trip, only hollow echoes of such tough-minded genre classics as “Le Samourai” and “Point Blank” (after which this film’s production company was named), as well as the director’s own decade-old hitman tale, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.”
To be sure, the surfaces are alluring; Doyle and Jarmusch approach the many beautiful buildings and locations with graceful, often curving camera moves that specifically suit the physical nature of their subjects, and steer clear of pretty postcard shots. But with the exception of the unavoidably provocative all-nude, all-the-time performance of voluptuous Paz de la Huerta as a sex bomb who sleeps with the protag but can’t get a rise out of him, the brief supporting turns, by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, John Hurt and Bill Murray, come off like insider gags that verge on the silly.
Worst of all, it just feels tired and recycled — the referencing of Rimbaud and Blake, the flagrant hipsterism that here falsifies rather than refreshes, the self-conscious plunking down of all manner of foreign actors in unlikely contexts, the above-it-all attitude toward connecting on a human level. And then there’s the music, mostly by a Japanese electronic noise outfit called Boris, that drones on ultimately to congeal into a state of undead rigor mortis.