In the latest film from the mercurial Jim Jarmusch, “The Limits of Control,” more than one character intones “the universe has no center and no edges.” The aphorism could well sum up the movie itself, a beautiful, amorphous muddle thwarted by a soporific pace and an unerring allegiance to the atmospheric. It’s pretty, vacant.
Isaach de Bankolé plays “Lone Man,” the phlegmatic, ice cold hitman, a cooler than cool customer with an exquisite, sculpted face, tautly tailored suits and a monastic devotion to the practice of Tai Chi. In an antiseptically timeless airport, he’s told at the outset by his French handlers in coded parlance to case the joint. In this case the joint, it seems, is Spain. And once he lands in Madrid, he begins to meet a succession of intermediaries who each deliver a matchbox stuffed with a missive. (The actual meaning of the numbered and lettered notes which he deciphers and then digests with a single swallow is never revealed.) The matchbox messages send him from the capital to Seville and finally to Andalusia, and all the while he resembles not so much a hired killer than he does a stoic, sartorial Rick Steves.
He sits, stylishly, in plazas for long stretches, observing but not scanning, doing nothing more menacing than ordering two espressos for himself in very particular terms; not a double but two singles. Characters enter the story randomly, as though the Lone Man is dreaming, and none of these unnamed, cameoed enigmas are given a modicum of depth. They are visages. Paz de la Huerta is “Nude,” literally, as she lolls in his swankily appointed hotel room unsuccessfully tempting him. Tilda Swinton is introduced striding strikingly in a painstakingly dramatic slow-motion shot across a plaza with cowboy hat, super cool boots and a Johnny Winters shag. It’s a performance as the “Blonde” which could be described as andrudgery. John Hurt, the Grizzled Earl of Indie, brings his reliable panache to his brief appearance as “Guitar,” but then he made captivating reading of tepid tabloid diaries on “The Big Fat Quiz of the Year,” so he’s an old hand at the more-from-less game. Gael García Bernal shows up for a mere wisp of a tacked on appearance as the whiskered “Mexican.” They chatter about art, films, bohemians and musical instruments, but decidedly one-sidedly as “Lone Man” listens with piercing eyes and barely an acknowledgment.
Yet as indecipherable as the movie becomes, “The Limits of Control” may be Jarmusch’s most visually appealing film. Christopher Doyle – who built his reputation with the works of Kar Wai Wong and Phillip Noyce and more recently shot films as disparate as “Hero” and “Paranoid Park” – provides mesmerizing cinematography. Dense and sharp and lovely in both styles, Doyle’s camerawork is meticulous. Whether winding through the contoured stairwells of “Lone Man’”s Madrid hotel, or capturing the earthy Mediterranean tones of the streets of Seville, or observing Bankolé sitting quietly in a museum gazing at Antoni Tàpies’s Gran Sábana, Doyle constantly finds captivating angles and perspectives to enhance the myriad color palette. The sets compliment the pictures and the production design from Eugenio Caballero is superlative.
By the time “Lone Man” breaches the heavily fortified compound of the “American” businessman played by Bill Murray – and as with the matchboxes we’re left ignorant to the secret of his entry — all semblance of a coherent story has been discarded for ambiance. Like Jarmusch’s last film, the unsatisfying “Broken Flowers,” the lead character travels but doesn’t really go anywhere, which contrasts so decisively from his enchanting “Coffee and Cigarettes” where folks essentially sat still, chatted and made welcome company. “The Limits of Control” is festooned with suits, wigs, scruffy beards and pubic hair; a costume party of fancy dress and meandering guests.
As Jarmusch becomes more imperceptible, Ramin Bahrani has emerged as one of the most lucid, forthright and important American directors of the decade. An independent filmmaker whose movies capture the meaningful lives of society’s marginalized, Bahrani makes films which display empathy and respect for the characters and care and concern for their stories. Since 2005, he’s made three extremely important works – “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and this year’s “Goodbye Solo” — about people who live in a recessionary existence even before the mainstream bottom fell out from under the giddy, greedy, and pernicious Wall Street orgy.
While the first two commendable features were set in New York City, Bahrani has returned to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina for this latest moving tale, “Goodbye Solo.” An immigrant from Senegal, Solo is a jovial cabdriver with a dream to become an air steward. He is also an expectant first-time father and de facto step-dad to his girlfriend’s pre-teen daughter. Solo befriends one particular passenger, William, who harbors an apparent death wish for reasons he doesn’t divulge. At an appointed time, William wishes to be taken to “Blowing Rock” above Johns River Gorge in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he doesn’t need a ride back. Solo wants to make sure he’s the driver who takes the fateful fare.
Bahrani fills the film with several story arcs which could have become trite or maudlin in lesser hands – the relationship between the irascible older gentleman and a happy-go-lucky junior; Solo trying surreptitiously to discover the untold basis for William’s decision; and a relationship fractured by a pregnancy. But he is such a composed, thoughtful director that he finds a fresh perspective to examine these recognizable elements. Bahrani is also ably assisted by co-writer Bahareh Azimi, who collaborated on “Chop Shop,” on a script which infuses the gritty with grace, smoothly melding the dramatic and the light hearted in a finely honed balance so that the see saw that seems so much like real life is both familiar and contextual.
In each of his movies, Bahrani has hired novices as the protagonists and they have mined perceptive and lasting performances. In “Man Push Cart,” Ahmad Razvi simmered with the vestiges of hidden pathos in the main role of the beleaguered cart operator. Alejandro Polanco delivered a phenomenally assured performance as the plucky Ale in “Chop Shop.” And in “Goodbye Solo,” Souleymane Sy Savane continues the trend of strong depictions with a stirring and convincing portrayal in the titular role in his first feature film. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to Liberian former world footballer of the year George Weah, Savane, an erstwhile runway model and African television star, creates an affable character who is charming but not slick, chatty but not scatty, and determined but not dogmatic. Savane is particularly effective at an airline interview where he is regal, earnest and genuine. He is an actor with immense presence and should, if casting directors have any sense, find work handily. As William, Red West, a one-time member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, carries himself with suitable hangdog resignation but brings an avuncular strength and nuance to the quietly tender moments. And Diana Franco Galindo is a poised delight as Alex, the savvy young girl who develops a parental bond with Solo, which is underscored in a touching scene when he helps her with schoolwork.
In the film’s denouement, Solo, with Alex along for support, drives William to “Blowing Rock.” The camera ascends into the clouds, poetically hovering at the precipice of a shrouded canyon, the wind rasping heartrendingly. Bahrani’s movies are potent, even searing at times, but he does not inflict them on an audience; they are indelible but not tattooed. Intrinsically human, they are films which give without taking.